Women growing older with grace and gusto

Death by pep squad

photo credit: will folsom

I‘m seriously fed up with many of the so-called self-help gurus. I call them the pep squad. They’re the ones with bright shiny plastic colours on their websites and their book jackets. They write about positive thinking and publish books and articles with titles like “How to achieve instant ecstasy” and “The Easy Way to…”.

Of course we all need people in our lives who will be our cheerleaders, who will love us, support us and listen to us. That’s not what I’m talking about.

The law of attraction

You’ve probably heard about the law of attraction. It’s big business. It talks about the power of the mind and emotions, and like attracting like: negative thoughts will attract negative events, positive thoughts the reverse.

It explains how we can attract objects, people and abilities into our lives by believing we already have them.

What I find most pernicious and invasive about it is that it comes with its own built in disclaimer: if I wish I had a new car and I don’t get one, then obviously my belief is simply not strong enough. I just need to have faith in the universe and my new car will manifest itself into my driveway. (And no-one is asking the question whether, in this world of ecological catastrophe, I actually deserve or need a new car.)

It’s incredibly superficial.

Is there something to it?

I’m not saying that positive thinking is a complete crock.

We all know people who moan and whine their way through life. (That’s not you, right? Thought not, just checking.) And it does seem that life is either genuinely harder for them or perhaps that they make heavier weather of it.

I’m optimistic by nature (with a healthy streak of cynicism) and I tend to believe more often that I can do something than that I can’t.  And I’m convinced that’s helped me in life because it’s given me more confidence. When I do catch myself complaining, I stop and I’m sure that creates a beneficial cycle.

You can put yourself in the way of a positive life by the actions you take or don’t take. As Quentin Crisp once said:

You have to lean out of the window so the Fates can see you.

But where the law of attraction is dangerous is in its promise of instant, effort-free results. Life just isn’t like that. (The gurus would say life isn’t like that for me because I don’t believe it!)


Consider inspiring people like Christine at Blisschick, who writes openly about her long struggle with complex post-traumatic stress disorder but has not let that stop her from beginning to dance at the age of 40, becoming certified to teach yogadance and, in her most exciting venture yet, is about to open her own movement studio for women. (If you’re anywhere near Erie, PA, you gotta check it out.)

And what about Janet Oberholzer, who nearly lost her life and her legs in a terrible accident. She’s recovered, and enjoys again her passion of marathon running, but she’s open about fighting depression and that sometimes she feels lousy. Her book about her experience, Because I Can, is published this month. When seeking a publisher, she was told:

…since it’s been more than a year or two since the accident and my injuries, the story doesn’t have as much appeal…It took four years, additional surgeries and months of therapy before I returned to running…Because it is a one-step-at-a-time story it doesn’t have as much shock value.

Neither of these women has had an easy or an instant journey. But their lives are real, their achievements wonderful.

Stops and starts

Our lives aren’t clear, linear progressions full of fluffy clouds and sunshine. Things happen to us that are not our fault, things happen to us that are our fault.

We probably all have those big moments of inspiration or Damascene conversions, but that doesn’t solve everything for ever. It’s the steps we take every day afterwards that really count. The falling down and getting up again.

That’s what all those glittery gurus selling their snake oil will never tell you.

Over to you

What are your views on positive thinking and the law of attraction?

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29 Responses to Death by pep squad

  1. Excellent post!
    And how kind of you Tess!
    I’m honored that you’ve included me in this post.

    Life is better when we are optimistic and think positively … but I totally agree with you that there’s danger in thinking life will just happen effortlessly if we have enough belief that it will. Having enough belief that I would run again did not get me back to running. Me choosing to get my butt off the couch and going for walks to get stronger is what helped my body heal enough to run again.

  2. I agree with you – I think the overall effect is a bit like the diet industry… making us collectively fatter. This form of self-help has an insidious down side – if you’ve not made it, if you’re not happy, if you haven’t achieved what you want, it’s because you haven’t ‘got’ it yet, or changed your thoughts enough, or found the ‘easy’ way to do things. (Of course, my leaving this comment is proof that I really haven’t got it yet!)
    Joanna Paterson recently posted..Remembering to LookMy Profile

  3. great post Tess

    the internet has certainly allowed for a heavy proliferation of self-help gurus and snake-oil sellers

    I think there is a place for positivity, and possibility thinking, but only when backed up with proactivity

    that’s what I see in the two ‘examples’ you offer, women who’ve had negative stuff served up to them, but they are working through it to create their own “luck”

    someone once said the harder one works, the ‘luckier’ one gets

    however, as with many things, the challenge is knowing where to draw the line, and where I might think the line should be drawn, someone else might think it should be further back, and another might think it should be further forward . . .

    for example, when I encourage people to create vision boards, or paint big, or sing/dance through their challenges; and remind them to see what manifests itself in real life down the track… some will think I have crossed the line, when in fact all it has done is crossed their line

    therein lies the challenge of subjectivity

    btw: i love that quentin crisp quote, and will think of it every time my dog goes window surfing in the car 🙂
    Kel recently posted..blessing for the dark hoursMy Profile

    • What ^ they said 🙂

      Sometimes I think that those people who go through life moaning about everything (I can fall into this space sometimes) may have physical components to their complaining. The eyes we see through are so clossely linked to the body we are living in.

      At other times, I think those people who go through life moaning are moaning because they have unworked-through realy true traumas that they need to deal with, whatever that may mean for them. In their situation it’s like stuffing yourself with sugar because your energy is flagging, when what ends up happening with quick-fix sugar-fixes are low low energy ebbs later on and extra pressure exerted on your body.

      That’s where I get angry at snake oil salesmen. They think that you can do the easy work, secular name-it-and-claim-its, when really what you need to do is go into the dark where you walk without having any idea where you’re walking and you bump into evil shapes in the dark. That is surely part of the human condition too.

      I think that’s why the Psalms would be my favourite part of the Christian scriptures 🙂

      • PS: Having said all that, though, positive thinking definitely has its place, and that place feels like a harbour. I think those law of attractionites are onto something; I just think it’s totally not the whole picture. It is the easy way out, something we all want. That’s why it’s so … attractive 🙂

        I do think though that “as a person thinks, so are they”. Life just needs to be more all-encompassing though than the simplistic version we see.

        • Good point, Sue, about the easy way out being attractive. I’m not immune. Some part of my brain still believes reading a self-help book will somehow transform me without any other effort on my part.
          What a great comment on the Psalms. That’s really helpful – people often ask why many of them are so gory and I’ve tended to say rubbish like they come from a different era etc. when of course they reflect humanity. (It feels very strange to hear the more violent ones sung calmly in beautiful voices!)

    • Hi Kel, I certainly think tools like vision boards are fantastic and nowhere near related to snake-oil. Our imagination is one of our greatest gifts, and when we allow it to guide our work, it can seem like magic.
      Glad you like the QC quote, he was so witty, I have a whole store of them.

  4. I am inclined to think the law of attraction is snake oil … a crock. IMHO. I’m also growing tired of the fact that there are so many self-appointed self-help-gurus. These people are everywhere and think they have all the answers! Grrrr. It’s irritating, to say the least. But, that’s just my opinion.

    • I always value your opinion Roxanne!
      I doubt very much that the advice of many self-help gurus is any more valuable (probably less) than the insights of friends. I do believe there are a few, however, who are truly wise. Barbara Sher, for example.

  5. I am deeply suspicious of these “self help gurus”. I always think, “What’s their agenda?” — apart from the obvious one of getting me to give them money, that is. But I can understand their appeal. What the SHG’s are peddling is a type of “magical thinking” — (the extreme version of this kind of thinking is the “compulsive” part of obsessive/compulsive disorder, BTW). If I just do this, or don’t do that, bad things won’t happen and I’ll be OK. The SHG’s tap into the very basic, very human need to be OK, to be safe, to be protected. Have you ever noticed that when times are tough, the religious fundamentalists always gain followers? — same thing. If you follow these religious laws and commandments to the letter, then (supreme being of choice) will like you and you’ll be OK. You will be in the “In” group, the select/elect/chosen, who will get out of jail free when the stuff hits the fan. (I’m not knocking religion, mind. I’m knocking those who use religion to accomplish their own agenda.) The SHG’s are just singing the umpteenth verse of that same old song: The reason bad things are happening to you is because you’re doing it wrong. Do it my way instead (their way is always the right way)and you will be OK. They promise pie in the sky by and by, but if it doesn’t materialize, it’s your fault because you’re not doing it right. The SHG’s are a species of con artist, whether they know it or not (and all too often, the first person they con is themselves.) That said, both optimism and pessimism are self-fulfilling prophesies. You’re always going to find what you’re looking for, good or bad. If you look for the good things, you’re more likely to see them and, more importantly, recognize them for what they are. If you are alert to what’s going on around you, you are in a better place to spot good opportunities and make use of them when they come along. All those sayings about “there’s always someone worse off than you are, count your blessings,” are warning you not to get caught in a rumination trap, spinning your wheels and tying up your personal “resources” — energy, attention, etc. — that could be better utilized in positive, constructive ways to get you closer to whatever goal you’ve set or place you want to be. When you turn inward and stew in your own troubles, or “what if” yourself into a tizzy, you’re not watching where you’re going. And when you’re not watching where you’re going, it’s easier to get blindsided. There is a reason why many so many religions and SHG’s preach their version of “what goes around, comes around” and that’s because it’s true. (“By their fruits ye shall know them.”) Positive or negative energy gets passed along. Think about it. If somebody is crabby, or mean, or ill-mannered to you, it puts you in a bad mood and you tend to pass that bad mood along in the way you react to others. But if somebody treats you nicely, goes the extra mile, is kind, courteous, caring, thoughtful, then that makes you feel good — and that’s the mood you pass along. In each case, the results are self reinforcing.
    WOL recently posted..PonderablesMy Profile

    • So many interesting points in this comment. For a start, yes it’s true that when things get scary, the fundamentalist religions get more followers. Same with ultra-nationalist groups and similar. I can understand it: a longing for safe boundaries, something familiar, or maybe for a past that never really existed.
      I like “‘what-if’ yourself into a tizzy”. That’s really true for so many of us, and yes, the positive and negative energies do affect us.
      And there are a lot of really good teachers around. It’s probably the ones who promise instant results for no effort that ring alarm bells for me.

  6. Tess, you know how I feel about The Secret, etc…watered down dribble. Watered down because it’s all so obviously taken from truly sacred, mystical texts and added to a lot of empty calorie sugar water to make it palpable. Because spiritual work is HARD work and we wouldn’t want to do anything that takes effort, that means we really have to dig down deep and make difficult changes in OURSELVES. No, it’s just easier to think that the outside world can change FOR us. That is the real sin of this watered down approach…there are people who are needing and looking for help and then they unluckily run into over-simplified hogwash.

    That said…thank you for the shout out.

    Christine (Blisschick) Reed recently posted..One Thing Leads to AnotherMy Profile

  7. What’s that saying? Genius is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration … some thing like that! I guess this is how I feel about positive thinking. Yeah, it’s important if you want to achieve some thing. But you have to put in the hard yards too if you want to get there.
    Anne-Marie recently posted..regrets.My Profile

  8. I am not too fond of self-help books but I do read one now and then. I don’t think they ever really say anything new. They just use new terminology to say what has been said before.

    I do think we need to be careful of our thoughts. If we fill our minds with trash, our own trash or someone elses, then we will not have room for beauty and freshness and goodness.

    Some trash thoughts for me is all the “shoulda, coulda,if only’s”. Sometimes they kind of fill my mind and I have to get rid of them and put them where they belong–in the trash bin–not my head.

    Most important is to tell yourself the truth, your truth, and live in reality, your reality. Not what someone else has determined is true and real for you.
    Patricia recently posted..Sunday, learn, live, hope…My Profile

    • Hi Patricia, thanks for your comment and welcome to my site. You’re right about trash. It doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full if there’s rubbish in it.
      Just had a quick look at your website – you have some good stuff there. Love the Erma Bombeck quote! And I really like the design.

  9. This post struck a nerve! I am an optomist and it causes me no end of trouble–because I see the way things could be and want to work to make them that way. Unfortunately that means I try to change things that my bosses and other “business types” tell me I just need to accept, think “positive” about, and toe the line!

    They even hint that if I don’t fall in line that I am a “negative” person who needs to be “let go” for the good of the organization–egads! and this is happening in health care!

    Fortunately, I can cut back on my work hours at this point–just work PRN (as needed) so I finally don’t feel controlled by this line of thinking and can truly be the wisewoman who stands up and tells the truth–not out of negativity but out of true care and concern for the wellfare of us all.

    Working 24/7 is not what life is about. Our jobs should make living our lives possible and enjoyable–otherwise who really wants to live a life that is all about making corporations richer and our own lives and those of our family and friends poorer? I see no point in living that kind of life.

    I totally reject the idea that because I believe the way I do that I am “negative.” I love people, want positive change and improvement, but I know the difference between good change and change that means skimming the cream, killing the golden goose (unsustainable). Change for the sake of change is just choas. Hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies are about to feel the same scutiny that other big businesses have undergone–and it’s about time!

    OK, Betty, you’re on a rant, stop now.

    Thanks, Tess!

  10. well, here I am late as ever! A long time ago I read a moving article about a mother in India who had ten children and spent 12hours a day scavenging on a rubbish tip for anything that she could sell that would provide an income for her and her family (small child on back, little ones hanging around her)…. For some reason this has always stayed in my mind, now when I read any of these slick and easy SHG`s advice I always think, “How would this work for that mother?”

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