“Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.” ~Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
I remember being introduced to The Secret about a decade ago (just after it made it’s widely popular debut thanks to Oprah), and completely buying into the idea that I could manifest what I desired by imagining it would be so and creating a vision board and then just wanting it really, really badly.
I also fell into the trap of believing so wholeheartedly and literally in the law of attraction that I was certain my thoughts would attract into my life exactly the things I was spending my time thinking about.
(Admittedly, I was extra susceptible to The Secret’s message because I was in a not-so-good place at that point generally and was desperately searching for a way up and out.)
And while there were some upsides to being convinced this was the way things in the world worked, there were also some major downsides to this approach that I only realized later, when I’d failed to manifest a variety of things I desired and started to doubt that there was truly a secret of this sort at work in the universe.
Except that before I started to explore these doubts, I started to feel kind of crappy about myself.
Because I was having a ridiculously difficult time keeping the worst case scenario out of my mind or entertaining the possibility things might not turn out the way I was hoping they would. And I just kept worrying that if I imagined the worst thing happening — and maybe even let myself have a contingency plan just in case — I was certain to attract it into my life.
And also, when things inevitably sometimes (ahem, lots of times) didn’t happen like I wanted them to happen, I just assumed I was a terrible manifestor who lacked the discipline to just think about the very best things all the time and so, obviously, every single less-than-desirable thing I encountered was totally and absolutely my fault.
Enter: Shame spiral.
Followed by some serious reevaluating on my part.
Consider this quote taken directly from The Secret:
“Decide right now that you are going to think only good thoughts. At the same time, proclaim to the Universe that all your good thoughts are powerful, and that any negative thoughts are weak.”
Or this one:
“Begin right now to shout to the universe, “Life is so easy! Life is so good! All good things come to me!”
“Ask once, believe you have received, and all you have to do to receive is feel good.”
Ugggghhh. Such a watered down, simplistic, self-serving interpretation of how the universe operates.
And with all the off-hand references to quantum physics as of way of backing up its claims, The Secret takes serious liberties with some supremely complicated science — much of which we still don’t fully understand.
It is kind of the poster child for the law of attraction self-help contingent, and what journalist and author, Oliver Burkeman, calls “the cult of optimism.”
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against optimism.
I’ve even written about the perils of the negativity bias and suggested it’s possible to intentionally cultivate a more positive, optimistic outlook on yourself and your life.
I also still totally believe in magic.
That being said, I think there’s a big difference between: 1) working to eliminate outdated, negative, self-destructive thought patterns that are not in your best interest, and 2) outright dismissing all unpleasant feelings and ignoring the possibility that less-than-desirable things might sometimes come your way.
Because here’s the truth, you guys:
“Shit happens” is a cliche because shit really does happen. Pretty often, in fact.
And directly engaging with this reality does not automatically make you an unhappy person. Not even close.
For some of you — myself included — getting intimate with potentially negative outcomes can actually make you feel calmer, more confident, and less anxious overall.
Whaaaaat? I know. But it’s true.
Also: I think we need to start celebrating the fact that we are all wired a little bit differently. And that even though, yes, we can absolutely alter that wiring with some focused attention and effort, there are also things about these differences that we should embrace instead of trying to change.
I wrote here about my very intentional efforts to rewrite my own internal dialogue, which was riddled with self-deprecating beliefs and negative self-talk and a long list of ways in which I was inherently terrible.
At this point, I’ve managed to (mostly) oust those scripts and replace them with a much kinder, more compassionate, self-supportive set of thought patterns.
But that doesn’t mean I let myself off the hook about everything, or never call myself out for not being my best me or for not living in alignment with my values.
And it certainly doesn’t mean that I never feel pessimistic or fearful or uncertain about a potential outcome.
In fact, allowing myself to entertain the idea that things might not turn out the way I hope they might — instead of suppressing these thoughts and/or shaming myself for having them in the first place — is something I do all the time.
For me, this approach is MUCH better than telling myself that “all my negative thoughts are weak” as The Secret recommends, or proclaiming that, “Life is so easy!”
Because guess what, you guys? It’s not.
Being a human is hard, and it is absolutely ok to acknowledge this truth without somehow accidentally manifesting horrible things into your life.
I still believe the optimistic approach works for some people, but I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all answer to the happiness question. And that for those of us who are maybe a little skeptical and cautious and even pessimistic by nature, giving ourselves permission to embrace these attributes without becoming victims to them can ultimately bring us a lot of joy.
Visualizing the best possible outcome and acknowledging that the worst might happen instead are not mutually exclusive approaches to life, if you ask me.
And sometimes just knowing you’ll be fine regardless of how things go, can take the edge off the uncertainty and actually alleviate some anxiety.
This has been my experience over the past few years, and it is backed up by recent research, much of which is being carried out by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, who has taken a closer look at positive thinking and brought to light some of its more perilous downsides.
Which isn’t to say you should eliminate all positive thinking. I don’t believe this at all. But I do advocate for sprinkling in a little bit of realism to get the most out of your optimistic attitude.
Also: You can let yourself off the hook for entertaining the worst case scenario. Because contrary to what The Secret and the “cult of optimism” suggest, this doesn’t guarantee bad things are going to happen.
It certainly doesn’t mean you’re not happy or fulfilled or fantastically fun at a party.
And it definitely doesn’t make you personally responsible for every less-than-stellar outcome you encounter in this life.
Are we powerless to affect the universe? Absolutely not.
But some things are a total crapshoot. And I truly believe it’s better to make peace with this fact instead of punishing yourself for not being a perfect Manifestor of Awesomeness or pretending you can control everything in this complex, intricate, ever-changing world.
As the brilliant author, Joan Didion, wrote in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking: “Everything’s going along as usual and then all shit breaks loose.”