A common criticism of positive thinking is that it’s self-delusion. Images of Saturday Night Live’s Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley come to mind: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
I happen to think this criticism is perfectly valid. I don’t do daily affirmations or recommend them to others because I think they’re a waste of time. Too much positive thinking can lead to self-delusion. You experience a false sense of growth because you lower your awareness, blinding yourself to your problems instead of truly facing them. As a general rule of personal development, whenever you do something that lowers your awareness instead of raises it, you’re making a mistake.
Personal growth is more than merely conditioning yourself to feel better about your life. While some people clearly need an attitudinal adjustment to make progress, the optimal attitude for personal growth doesn’t arise from self-delusional positive thinking. You don’t need positive thinking for personal growth. You simply need intelligence.
If you find that your personal growth efforts are in conflict with what your intelligence is telling you, trust your own intelligence, regardless of what anyone else says, including me. I’ve read hundreds of self-help books over the years, and a significant percentage of them included exercises which I felt at the time were pointless and stupid. But I usually did them anyway because I figured the author probably knew more than me and that there would be a good reason for doing them. But I was right. Those exercises were just fluff, and I got much better results when I began trusting my own intelligence above what any self-help book contained. I just wish it hadn’t take me years to figure that out.
There are three key components of intelligence as it relates to personal growth: self-trust, awareness, and fearlessness. Note that positive thinking isn’t one of them.
In the long run, it’s more important to learn to trust your own intelligence than it is to be right. At first your self-trust may be misplaced. You may very well find that you make a lot of dumb decisions by trusting yourself ahead of people who seem to know more. But through this process of failure, you’ll develop your intellectual capacity and expand your awareness, and soon your self-trust will be justified, and you’ll begin making some really empowering decisions that actually generate results. Follow Shakespeare’s advice, “To thine own self be true,” even when it gets you into trouble initially, and eventually your faith in yourself will be well-earned.
The reason for self-trust becomes clear when you consider the alternative, which is never to fully trust yourself. You can’t really behave intelligently if you can’t trust your own decisions and act on them. Imagine what would happen if your computer was always doubtful about its computations, so it figured it was best not to share the results with you for fear of being wrong. It would be useless. And it’s fair to say that a human being who cannot trust him/herself is somewhat useless, in the sense that s/he is living far below his/her potential. But in that case, the most likely outcome is that this person will end up serving whatever goals social conditioning imparts. In the USA this means getting a job, going into debt, and gaining weight, among other things.
It’s fine to put more faith in your scuba instructor when you know nothing about scuba. That isn’t a self-trust issue. Self-trust comes into play when you make the big decisions of your life, such as those involving your career, your choice of mate, your spiritual beliefs, and how you will live. It isn’t intelligent to let your parents, your spouse, or your social conditioning make these decisions for you. I guarantee that if someone else makes these decisions on your behalf, your results in life will be nothing but a pale shadow of your true potential.
Trust your own intelligence, even when it doesn’t seem warranted to do so. For example, if you think I’m full of B.S., then don’t read anything more from me. Seek out sources of knowledge that resonate with you on a deep level. You won’t always be right, but you’ll learn from your mistakes, and soon your self-trust will be warranted. And that’s when you’ll really begin to shine – when you can trust yourself fully AND be justified in doing so. Look upon self-trust as a skill to be developed, one that you must keep pushing towards congruency. It’s perfectly OK to be wrong now and then.
Awareness is a crucial component of intelligence. To make intelligent decisions, you need accurate data. If you ignore valid data, you lower your awareness and thereby your intelligence. Imagine how your computer would function if it simply disregarded the contents of its memory on occasion: “I’m not going to read that part of my RAM because it looks like there’s a lot of work for me to do in there.” Stupid of course… yet this is precisely what we humans do that holds us back.
Positive thinking can reduce intelligence by lowering awareness. Instead of facing your real problems and challenges, you try to write them off with affirmations. That isn’t the way to grow. It’s better to face and accept the whole truth, even if you don’t like what you see. A little pain now and then isn’t going to kill you.
Part of awareness involves acknowledging your weaknesses. I don’t affirm that my weaknesses don’t exist. I simply say to myself, “Yup. That’s a weakness.” Then I can consciously choose to work on it or not. There’s only so much time to devote to personal growth, so we are humans cannot fix all our problems overnight. But we can make progress on the ones that matter most – if we acknowledge their existence.
Some of my personal weaknesses include:
- Fashion. My wife keeps submitting applications to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on my behalf. That pretty much says it all. Being colorblind doesn’t help, nor does the fact that I wore uniforms for eight years of my life (Catholic school). Plus I’m not gay. Help me, Carson.
- Music. My younger brother is a musician living in Japan (guitar and vocals) and recently appeared on TV there. And my wife plays the piano beautifully. But my musical talent appears nonexistent. While I love listening to music, I can’t play any instruments. I tried learning the piano, but I hated it. Is there such a thing as a left-handed piano?
- Cars. I’m typing this blog entry on a PC I built myself, but I never look under the hood of my car. I don’t even know how to change the oil. My Dad is very skilled at auto maintenance, but I’ve never shared his passion. I’m strictly a computer guy. Unfortunately, I really need a new car soon, since my “˜94 Pontiac has 156,000 miles on it and is on its last legs. But this is an area where I have no idea what I’m doing. Mostly I’m annoyed we don’t have transporters yet.
I’m aware of these weaknesses and many others, but I’ve chosen not to work on them because there are other things which are much more important to me. I don’t do positive affirmations and then work on my car. A mechanic does the work. I enjoy listening to music almost every day (trance is my favorite genre), but I use writing and speaking as my creative outlets. And when it comes to dressing myself, I use that as a tool for humor, which makes it easier for me to genuinely connect with people.
Did you know that it’s possible to acknowledge your weaknesses with no loss of self-esteem? If you have a bad marriage, a job you hate, or a belly that’s way too big, it’s better to acknowledge it and keep your awareness high than to try to convince yourself the problem doesn’t exist and lower your awareness. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge its existence. Don’t allow yourself to lower your awareness even when faced with problems that seem intractable.
Fearlessness means living without fear. Duh. I’m not referring to your biological fight-or-flight response but rather to irrational fears like fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of success. It’s intelligent to avoid going head-to-head with a lion. It isn’t intelligent to be afraid of public speaking.
Think about it. Supposedly people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Isn’t that sort of… well… dumb? I say this not to proclaim my own fearlessness but rather because I lived with this fear for most of my life and found it very annoying. Why did I have to get nervous before getting up in front of an audience? What’s the point? There’s no real danger, is there? So why is my body pumping out cortisol and adrenaline? Why am I experiencing the physiological reaction of fear if there’s no reason to be afraid?
There might be times when you have good reason to decline a public speaking situation, but this is the kind of decision that should be made intelligently based on opportunity and risk. Fear shouldn’t be part of the equation.
Fear has become such an integral part of our society that we’re expected to be afraid. We regard public speaking as if it’s supposed to be scary and “only natural” to be nervous. Talking to members of the opposite sex is threatening. Starting a new business is too risky. Some people feel it isn’t even safe to go outside their homes. Yet the real danger in these situations is negligible… unless you happen to live in New York City that is - those people are genuinely nuts.
Time to add another line to my email filter.
Fearlessness isn’t the same as courage. With courage you face your fears, and that’s a potent skill in its own right. But with fearlessness you never experience the emotional reaction of fear in the first place. Imagine doing public speaking and not being nervous at all. Is that possible? Sure it is. I’ve done it many times.
Last night I attended my first improv comedy workshop. After seeing the live performance the previous week, I was amazed. The performers’ skill seemed almost inhuman, especially being able to come up with original songs off the top of their heads in a matter of seconds. But I was intrigued, so I signed up for eight weeks of classes. Before the class started, one of the other students said to me, “There are two ways you can do this: 1) ease into it gently and gradually warm up to it, or 2) just jump right in and do it.” I said, “I’m definitely a jumper.” Total immersion is a great way to learn, so I dove in fearlessly and did all the exercises and games that everyone else did, as opposed to sitting on the sidelines and just watching. During the class I made up stories and songs, played games like charades and props, got down on all fours barking like a dog, acted out a character named Rufus, got a mock haircut, and did a lot of other crazy things. Basically I made a complete fool of myself. But I had a blast and am looking forward to the next workshop. The reason I had such a good time even though I was out of my element was that I went into the class with the attitude that it was perfectly acceptable to me to fail. And of course that’s the intelligent attitude to have because I was genuinely in no real danger – no matter how poor my performance was, I couldn’t possibly be hurt. But most people aren’t like that – they get nervous in such situations due to fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or failure. But without fear one is able to focus on learning and having fun instead of on worry and anxiety.
Being afraid or nervous in situations where there’s no real danger simply isn’t intelligent. Yet most people go through their whole lives avoiding situations because of irrational fear. We’re socially conditioned to believe it’s normal and natural to be afraid in such situations. But there’s nothing natural and normal about it at all. It’s common, but it isn’t our natural state to be afraid. Children tend to be a lot more fearless than adults – we learn to be afraid as we grow up. Why? Because we’re taught a model of the universe which, if we believe it, will induce fear automatically. Dump that model and you dump irrational fear along with it. It’s well and good to learn that we should look both ways before crossing the street. But it’s just dumb to be conditioned to fear public speaking, asking someone out on a date, or starting a new business. We might not have had a say when that conditioning was first imparted, but we have a say now.
The solution to irrational fear isn’t to adopt positive thinking and try to overwrite the fear with affirmations. That’s just dumb. The real solution is to turn on our wonderful brains and dive more deeply into our fears in order to really understand them. Underlying irrational fears are irrational assumptions about reality. Once we can see this clearly, it’s natural and normal to simply drop those irrational assumptions altogether. So the big problem with fear is that it’s based on an inaccurate model of reality. If we could perceive reality accurately, we would be much less afraid. So I’m saying that if public speaking makes you nervous, it’s because you don’t perceive reality accurately enough to really believe at a deep enough level that there’s nothing at all to be afraid of.
I think fearlessness is a key component of enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense). If you find that you have irrational fears that hold you back, can you accept that these fears might be caused by an erroneous understanding of reality? I gave that possibility some thought, and by following this trail diligently, I eventually reworked my whole concept of reality to the point where I stopped creating fear when it wasn’t warranted. So I found that this was indeed the solution to irrational fear. To overcome fear we simply need to upgrade our understanding of reality – all the way down to the level of our spiritual beliefs.
The bad news is that if you happen to be attached to spiritual beliefs that are irrational and fear-inducing, then you’ll never be able to let go of fear no matter how hard you try. You can still develop courage or turn to pharmaceuticals to numb yourself emotionally, but otherwise the irrational perception of fear will always be with you. It’s simply a natural consequence of an irrational perception of reality.
If someone pulls a gun on me in dark alley, I’ll be scared out of my wits because my biological fight-or-flight response will take over, and I probably won’t have immediate access to my rational mind. But if I’m put in a situation where I have to take a social risk that involves no real danger (like making a fool of myself in public), that won’t phase me as much. And the reason isn’t that I’m some uber-courageous hero. It’s simply because I happen to view reality in such a way that I genuinely perceive no threat from such situations. Speaking in front of an audience is no more emotionally challenging than talking to my wife. Actually, she’s probably the greater challenge of the two.
How does one develop the quality of fearlessness? I’ve already talked about this at length on Podcast #8: Overcoming Fear, so if you haven’t already heard that one, give it a listen. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about it. You won’t necessarily agree with me on all points, which is perfectly fine, but it should get you thinking about alternatives to the current way in which you view reality. The real key is that you must upgrade your understanding of reality from an irrational one that produces irrational fear to a more rational one that produces no fear. On that podcast I present the model that worked for me (which comes from Buddhism), but I don’t believe that’s the only rational model of reality that makes it possible to transcend fear – I’m sure there are others, but I imagine they’re going to share similar qualities.
If your body starts pumping out stress hormones in situations that presents no real danger, then you aren’t behaving intelligently, are you? But your body isn’t an idiot. Your mind is just feeding it bad information.
You don’t need positive affirmations to deal with this problem – affirmations will only treat the symptoms. What you need is a genuine cure for fear, such that you learn to stop producing the symptoms of fear altogether. This is an intelligent approach because you really shouldn’t be afraid when you aren’t in any real danger.
Beyond Positive Thinking
When you develop the qualities of self-trust, awareness, and fearlessness, the natural consequence of these will be optimism. But this isn’t the phony optimism that comes from self-delusional thinking. You’ll have good reason to be optimistic because you’ll have the asset of intelligence working for you at full strength, and intelligence is an incredibly powerful human endowment. You’ll be able to handle challenges that would have previously paralyzed you because fear will no longer be part of the picture. Fear is a major barrier to intelligence.
We humans are emotional creatures. If we feel fear, it’s going to influence our actions, perhaps even to the point of controlling them. Developing courage is a good start, but eventually we need to stop producing fear altogether. Fear simply isn’t necessary for our survival. And when fear gets out of the way, then a positive emotional state becomes the norm. Not neutral – positive. This is the state of joy, where you go through your days feeling ridiculously happy, highly motivated, and passionately driven by the desire to serve others… and for no apparent reason. But the reason is simple. Since it feels good to be joyful and since life would be much better on this planet if all humans felt this way instead of being afraid of each other, it’s only intelligent for your body to pump out the hormones that create joy and happiness around the clock. Sure you can be knocked out of this state from time to time, and you’ll still experience negative emotions now and then, but imagine what it would be like if the state of joy was your everyday default. The state of joy is far superior to the state which most people consider to be normal or neutral. When joy becomes your default state, you’ll realize that the state you previously labeled as neutral was actually mild fear.
Overcoming fear and reaching the point of perpetual joy isn’t easy though. And that’s an understatement because most people never reach this state in their entire lifetimes. One of the most difficult problems is that fear has become such an integral component of life on earth these days. When people are afraid, they’re easy to manipulate. They can be controlled by pulling on their fear strings. Stirring up fear is an effective way to induce action because deep down, we all desire to be unafraid, so the elimination of fear is a powerful incentive for spending. There are more positive reasons for spending money too, but too many companies today are aligned with this fear model. This is particularly true in the USA, where our media is largely devoted to stirring up fear and then using it to shape public opinion in a manner that drives sales for the companies of greatest influence.
Part of the reason people use fear to manipulate others is that they mistakenly believe it will help them assuage their own fears. A common way of dealing with fear is to try to control that which you fear. But this only perpetuates and strengthens fear in the long run, so more and more control is needed. This happens at the individual level as well as the community level. For example, fear is one of the driving forces behind how the USA deals with the rest of the planet. This country’s strategy is based on achieving greater and greater control in order to assuage the fears of its citizens. For non-Americans this is easier to see, but there are those of us in this country who recognize the severity of this problem and are working to change it. In the long run, I believe the control strategy will ultimately fail. It just isn’t necessary for human beings to relate to each other this way any longer. We’re going to have to let it go.
Don’t be so naive as to think that there aren’t forces working against you. There are. But fortunately, those forces aren’t strong enough to stop you if you continue to intelligently pursue the development of your own consciousness. Self-delusional positive thinking merely perpetuates fear and shoves it below the level of conscious awareness. It’s better to be afraid and be aware of your fear, so you can ultimately perceive its irrationality and learn to release it. Then your behavior will become far more intelligent, and you’ll be amazed at just how fearful everyone else seems by comparison. Then you can help them overcome fear as well, and over our lifetimes we’ll gradually shift this planet away from fear and over to the side of unconditional love, where our true potential as human beings will finally be able to manifest.
Yeah, I’m an optimist, but I have good reason to be.