I suppose it will come to no surprise to Vache Folle that I disagree with him over There's Nothing Wrong With Being Negative When the Situation Calls For It. I don’t consider myself one of the always-positive pollyanna types, but that said, I see a lot wrong with having a negative attitude.
The first two paragraphs of his commentary contain the bulk of what I object to (although from what I have heard from those who work in such environments, his observations on managers [not quoted below] seems spot on):
One concept that I encountered frequently in my studies of the West Indies and West Indians was “negativity”. Negativity, it is said, perpetuates all kinds of social ills. You’ve got to be “positive” to get anything accomplished. It’s a load of crap, of course, but it is said so often that folks actually start to believe it. Charges of negativity are most often used to stifle criticism and to make victims of social ills blame themselves.
While it is fitting to try to keep on the sunny side of life, it makes no sense to deny that problems exist or to obscure their causes, unless you are the cause.
Leaving aside the last clause of that last sentence on grounds that it’s supposed to be a humorous aside, there’s plenty of evidence at all levels of human functioning that ignoring problems does not help solve them. But is acknowledging a difficulty or unpleasant situation or prospect being negative? I consider such acts as falling fully within the realm of being realistic. It’s what comes after that assessment that is critically important. But, back to Folle’s post for a moment ... he essentially says that the “positive thinking” concept is hooey. I’ve encountered that idea time and time again, and in my experience it comes almost exclusively from individuals whose way of being is strongly and fundamentally oriented toward the negative, rather than the positive side of the continuum. Given the difficulties such individuals have with explicitly thinking positively, it should come as no surprise that they reject it. Looking beyond that, though, I see a lot of evidence that positive thinking works—even in pessimists’ lives.
Much of what we do in our daily lives, we do mostly on autopilot. We don’t even think about tasks like driving to work, using the microwave, or weeding the garden: we’ve performed them so often that all the steps that go into them require little thought, beyond a minimum of attention. But the situation wasn’t always like that. Observing children provides some helpful clues as to what is often underlying our efforts. While they were here, my children were attempting to learn all kinds of things, including my latter two examples. Interestingly, at first Darlin’ Daughter decided that she could not work the microwave – and so she couldn’t. She couldn’t even follow simple, step-by-step directions given her while she was trying to use it. Later, we tried again, and she did it with absolutely no problem. She hadn’t learned anything new in the interim that would explain the change; the only difference I was able to identify was her state of mind. Similarly with my son and weeding. It isn’t quite as easy as learning to operate a microwave, but it isn’t overly complex either. Yet he entered his first attempt with an attitude of “I don’t think I can do this”, and although he was mostly doing fine, he declared himself a failure and quit. My attempts to point out what he was doing well were for naught; and sadly, he wasn’t willing to try again before they left.
My point is this: implicit in all the daily tasks we do is a positive attitude—because we have successfully executed them many times before, we are reasonably confident that we can perform them adequately again. Whatever failures there might have been while we were learning have been overshadowed by our successes, so much so that the positive attitude is below our conscious awareness. When we step up to do something familiar, we don’t generally think about success or failure; our below-conscious-awareness knows we can do it, and so we set to it. When we start to wander outside that familiar realm, however, we do stop to consider possible outcomes, our willingness to accept them, and our abilities to handle whatever is under consideration. Children show us how this plays out, largely because they are actively learning so many things, and also deciding how to allocate their time, attention, and skills: confidence often makes even the first few efforts more of a success than might be expected; a hesitant but willing approach generally is rewarded with the realization that the task wasn’t as difficult as imagined, or that one is good at some elements of it; but a negative attitude almost always means that an attempt isn’t even made. I think that absent even a pale positive perspective such as, “This looks really challenging/scary/difficult, but I think I can do it”, the vast majority of humans won’t even attempt the task. And without an attempt, there can be no success.
To my mind, a negative attitude is the largest, bulkiest, hardest chain we can put on ourselves. Because it can halt any effort to grow, to learn, or expand one’s skills, it’s a most effective stifler of one’s freedom. Want to get out of a dead-end job, move to an unfamiliar area, or stop letting the jackboots control and track your actions? You have to tell yourself that you can at least try, if you’re going to see any progress. The least bit of positive attitude—“Well, at the very least I’ll learn something from trying this”—unlocks one’s freedom. The freedom to try, to learn, to extend oneself beyond what one’s limits were thought to be – and yes, to fail. However, after making an effort, there is always something gained—that kind of failure always provides important feedback to the individual willing to observe, reflect, and learn. The failure of not even trying offers nothing positive that I can see ... there’s just a slow accretion of “what ifs” and “what could have beens”.
A far better writer than I put it this way: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” So yes, by all means, recognize that being injured in a car accident sucks, or that having the IRS pick your pocket hurts in many ways. But what do you do after that? Saying “I can’t walk” is very different from “I can’t walk right now”—implicit in the latter is that it’s a temporary state. It holds the freedom to try.
Much of what I have laid out above is broad generalization, I know. But start looking around: I wager that in most psychologically healthy individuals you will see what I’ve described. As for the congenitally negative, does this imply that they are doomed to a less-free life? Not necessarily. I have found that there’s a lot of leeway in some among that group. Perhaps being able to shift from “I can’t” to “I am willing to try” would be sufficient to open up possibilities previously undreamt of. For those unable to do that, the rising tide phenomenon will lift their boats along with everyone else’s.
Thanks to Vache’s entry, Cat Farmer’s recent essay, and preps for my forthcoming adventure, I have plumbed a few of my older writings ... and found some things I’d forgotten I said, and knew. Consider yourselves warned, as I will probably inflict some of that material on you here.