‘Positive Thinking’ Mantras Can Cross into Gaslighting

As I just commented to Patient Anonymous, I should write a light and fluffy post given that I am coming out of 4-day depressive episode, but this post on Facebook caught my attention and I want to say something about it (I will do light and fluffy after).

I am not against positive thinking, but I am against the mandatory positive thinking and happiness we have created in our culture. Because of this, it is very hard for some people to see how promoting positive thinking could be invalidating and even abusive. An article I came across on Facebook called, 7 ‘Positive Thinking’ Mantras That Can Actually Cross the Line into Gaslighting echoed my concerns and gave it a name. If you are not familiar, gaslighting is a technique used to manipulate people into questioning their perception of reality. It is frequently used by abusers as a form of emotional control. I have been a victim of gaslighting. It is a horrible experience to be in and hard to undo (but possible). I am not saying that people who use and enforce these ‘positive thinking’ mantras are abusers or mean to be abusive, but gaslighting is deeply embedded in our everyday language. Ever been told you’re ‘too sensitive’? It plants the doubt in your mind that you are being unreasonable, hysterical even. Gaslighting also removes the responsibility the person or people have in being respectful and responsible because the blame is laid on the other person or sometimes whole communities.

Please click on the hyperlink above to read the article and see all of the mantras. I would just like to touch on a few, how they damaged my life and what I’m doing about it.

‘There is no use dwelling on the past.’

Saying this means that our past does not matter and that feeling upset about it means there is something wrong with you. In some cases, the part of your past you may be “dwelling” on is a traumatic event that shapes your present and may influence your future.

Encouraging someone to ignore their past pains isn’t helping them move on but potentially burying the trauma and making it worse. Trauma is complex and not ‘dwelling’ on it won’t make it go away. Possibly you just don’t want to hear about my trauma? Did it involve you? Does it make you feel bad? It’s not about you. It’s not like I want to remember and I really do have no control over when the memories surface.

When people tell me it’s in the past and that it shouldn’t matter I try my best to ignore them (if they are not significant people) or explain to them how the past is affecting me presently (if they are significant people). It is problematic that I need to explain this, but this is what I have chosen to do. Reading books about how our past affects our present as well as briefly seeing a therapist that believes our past influences our present, have helped me understand the value of my past experiences not just negatively (bad memories) but also positively (demonstrating my ability to survive).

‘We seek confirmation of what we already believe.’

I believe that this one hurt me the most. I have memories of crying on the floor of my ex’s home, completely terrified that what I believed was happening was not actually happening. What do you do when you cannot trust your mind to tell you the truth? Well, you put your faith in someone else, you surrender your reality to another because apparently yours is wrong and theirs is right.

To tell someone that what they believe is a preconceived notion instead of being based on their actual observations is damaging. This mantra devalues our thoughts, our intuition and our intelligence. Nothing you believe is taken seriously by outside parties or yourself. This is wrong.

Getting this book from the library. I will report back on it!

I, personally, have found this particular gaslighting mantra to be difficult to overcome. After many years of being told that I was making things up, looking for bad things and creating my own problems I still find myself agreeing. What I have been trying to do to combat this is by reminding myself and others that our perception is our own and that by sharing it we can better understand where each other is coming from. I know that acceptance of someone’s perception is not agreeing with it, but it is the first step to being able to create a solution for everyone to move forward.

‘Smile’ (or ‘Don’t cry’).

Probably the most annoying mantra of all time and the most used.This is the mantra that children hear from an extremely young age that will emotionally debilitate them for the rest of their lives. I  have heard parents, caregivers and staff frequently say this throughout my work with children.

Telling someone to smile or not to cry is directly telling them that they should be happy and not express the sadness or other emotion that they are feeling. ‘Smile’ or ‘Don’t cry’ encourages people to hide their emotions, propagates the belief that we are completely in control our emotions and that how we feel is someone’s business.

I cope with this through my own emotion-positive mantra which is, “It is ok to feel bad.” I do my best to validate my own emotions and the emotions of others. Learning about the brain and emotions has also been of great help in understanding where I do and do not have control and what emotions mean from a biological standpoint.

Also see:

3 Lies we need to stop telling about ‘negative people’

Affirmation colouring book: It’s ok to feel bad

Sensitive is a dirty word


17 thoughts on “‘Positive Thinking’ Mantras Can Cross into Gaslighting

  1. Pingback: Bipolar is Gaslighting You | Bipolar First Bipolar Together

  2. Until recently, the only person I ever heard use the term “gaslighting” was my mother as, back as far as when I was a child in the ’60s. She loved that movie and used the term both as it appears here, in a negative context, and also as a term for a practical joke that confused people. Recently I’ve heard the term “brain fuck” for the second usage, but my mother would never have said this!

    I wonder why the term is becoming common? I see it all over the Internet nowadays…

    I think the reason some of these forms of abuse are so powerful is because either there’s a grain of truth to them, or the victim felt this grain of truth whether it was real or not. Then the deliberate abuse of gaslighting magnifies this. In any case, this is a horrible form of abuse…

    • My thinking, off the top of my head, is that emotional abuse is becoming more known about and validated so we are hearing more about gaslighting and other manipulation techniques used by individuals who emotionally abuse. i hadn’t heard about gaslighting until this year but it is not a new thing as your Mother has shown you.

      I agree with what you’re saying about the power behind gaslighting and other forms of abuse. Many of find themselves in abusive relationships have a history of abuse. I know for myself, I was devalued and felt devalued for much of my childhood and was very shy so I couldn’t do some things for myself. As I got older, was diagnosed with mental health issues, my sanity was always questioned so I looked to others to show me how I was supposed to be. This still continues, but I am trying to stop it because no one will look out for me except myself. Overall, when we’re in a relationship, we trust and care about that person. It can be hard to think that they wouldn’t be doing what is in your best interest.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. I find this post intriguing for sure. I’m actually beginning to think some of my depressive moods really are completely “okay”. I find that when I embrace them in acceptance, rather than forcing myself out of them, the transitions seems to be….hmmm….smooth, I suppose. And, today, I’m coming off an emotional high and I’m feeling myself slipping into that depressive mood, but I don’t feel like fighting it. I am simply allowing it to traverse through my mind, because I think the sooner it leaves, the better.

    • I can relate to that! Showing yourself compassion is always healing. I have found that so long as my sad moments don’t make me slip into the abyss, it is nice to have a lazy day on the couch watching tv feeling a little blue. It’s important we listen to our bodies. It may be trying to tell us something.

  4. Everything you say is so so true. I feel these same ways all of the time. I especially hate it when I see a meme in my FB feed that says “I chose to be happy today.” They can’t just be happy. They have to tell everyone else that they are better than people who are not happy, because they chose it. It really is a superiority complex that people who are privileged enough not to have to deal with negative emotions have. They are promoting an idea that it is morally superior to be happy, because the people who are happy supposedly used willpower and personal responsibility to get there and make the world a happier and better place. And then that idea works to stigmatize those of us who just can’t be happy as often and we’re seen as bad people who are bringing everyone else down with our negative energy. It’s totally ableist. I’ve seen this work in really gross ways. A person I know who subscribes to the positivity mantras just cuts people out of her life who don’t choose to be happy, because they bring her down. It’s fine if someone doesn’t want to be around certain people for their own mental health, but it’s not okay to act like it’s because we are bad people who are trying to mess up their life, like we’re just demonic forces or something. I’ve heard that too. There’s an idea in Americanized Eastern spirituality feel-good culture that people who are negative are filled with dark energy and are kind of like demons. It’s beyond discriminatory. Anyway, great post, as usual.

    • It is superiority!!!! I always wake up with the intent to have a good day, but sometimes I don’t have a good day (last Sunday for example…ugh). I have seen from people I know that those who push aside their negative emotions, put on that smile and don’t engage with others who are experiencing negative emotions are actually very emotionally ill equipt. While my emotions can be extreme I know that I am better able to handle my lows than people who avoid theirs.

      Ableist is what it is in many cases. I wrote a post that sort of addresses the person you are describing. Many of my friends from high school cut me out because I was too sad and it was very difficult to deal with. This isn’t done on purpose! I think I would rather be friends with others who are filled with “demonic, dark forces” than with people who are high on themselves.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. Only recently did I actually find the term ‘gaslighting’, but like you, I can certainly relate that it was happening in a past relationship. In fact, in more than one. It’s taken a long time, but (like you) I can finally believe myself in what I’m experiening rather than trying to shun it and lie to myself.
    I can’t wait to hear how the book is. 🙂

    • Gaslighting has happened to me for many years. Everyone probably engages in it at some point in their life, just some really latch onto it. I will probably write a blog post about the book so stay tuned! I’m glad you can believe in yourself now. You are smart and know what you need and want! Thanks for your comment Celeste 🙂

  6. I don’t care for any of those phrases. I’m sure many of us have heard most of them at one time or another. I’m sure a lot of the time, they’re well-intended but still, very invalidating. I remember hearing the “sticks and stones” one when I was bullied growing up. It didn’t help. All it made me do was retreat into myself. It took years of therapy to get better.

  7. Pingback: When it’s not in your head and actually in your life | Pride in Madness

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