Blast From the Past: The Secret (and how much I loathe it)

[Introductory note: This was originally published on my old blog on March 10, 2007; because I am nothing if not a complete and total buzzkill, I think it’s worth re-archiving here, particularly since “new age” thought has a pretty strong foothold in Western–and particularly North American–culture. This sort of magical thinking still has a strong grip in many folks’ consciousness, even given the recent economic downturn; maybe I’m just naive, but I find the fact that some people can still be all ~*POSITIVE THINKING*~ and/or YOU GET BACK WHAT YOU PUT OUT even amidst widespread economic chaos and a brutal job market extremely surprising, and pretty sad.

Then again, realistic thinking has never been America’s strong suit, particularly amongst the privileged classes. The following post has been slightly edited for clarity. I have since written quite a bit on “positive thinking” as a means of social control, mostly at FWD: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking; Book Review: Bright-Sided; Just. For more information about precisely how harmful “positive thinking” can be when taken to the extreme, I highly recommend this blog post by Dr. David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine, which covers the Kim Tinkham case in detail (content warning for discussion of cancer).]

I just watched the latest and supposedly “greatest” in the self-help/marketing peoples’ insecurities back to them market, The Secret.

I sort of want that 90 minutes back. Now, before people start jumping on me and calling me negative, skeptical, bitchy, et cetera, let me assure you: I am, indeed, all three of those things. I tried to watch The Secret with an open mind. I really, truly did. But, I have to say, besides some of the stuff about visualization*–which I have thought of as a powerful tool for a while, and, at times, it has absolutely worked for me–I simply was unable to get on The Secret bandwagon.

I don’t know what it was that made me so hostile to the entire thing. Was it the overproduced “dramatic” re-enactments, some of which look very familiar to even a casual viewer of the History Channel? Was it “Dr.” Joe Vitale, Metaphysician,** who contends that ALL of the bad circumstances in your life come to you because of, well, you and your horrible, horrible negative thoughts? Was it Lisa Nichols, who was one of four women interviewed (out of 16-17 people) and one of two people of color interviewed? (She seemed to be the most sincere out of all of the “Teachers” interviewed, which endeared her to me quite a bit.) Was it the many shots of people from Other Lands, smiling and laughing, and getting fawned over by the “Teachers” due to their “natural” ability to Make Do With What They Have? Was it the completely oxymoronic focus on using The Secret to gain material things, money and houses (focused on after the many shots of our friends from other lands)? Was it the bizarre assumption that everyone watching the video wants the same damn things? Eeeek!

Then I reread this fantastic article, which outlines some of the problems with The Secret, and how Oprah, unfortunately, has basically adopted it as her credo and is trying to get her viewers to do the same. If it works for her, great. However, one thing that has bothered me about Oprah’s unquestioning acceptance of The Secret is this: It reinforces the great American trope of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. AKA: If Oprah/some disadvantaged person has become successful, then you can, too! All you have to do is think positive thoughts!

There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. I’m all for thinking good thoughts, but it is the denial of reality and various systems of oppression that make this position worse. Racism, for example, is one thing that is consistently denied as to its very existence. I have news for you, folks: Racism still very much exists. I can certainly create a non-racist America in my own mind (and let me tell you, it is awesome), but to see it in front of me is going to take some major societal changes. And it’s the same with sexism. And homophobia. And ableism, and classism, and all of that other fun stuff. “Creating your own reality” only goes so far–eventually, you will run into a structure that is bigger than you, and oftentimes, these structures are oppressive and hurtful to many people. I’m sorry if that sounds “negative,” but it is true for a lot of us. Not many people can conveniently ignore these structures in order to “think positive.”

Bad things are going to happen. Bad feelings happen. That is part of life. One of the Noble Truths of Buddhism, after all, says that life is full of suffering. Of course it is, even though it is also full of Great Things. To deny this is to deny an actual, authentic life. And I have to say, I feel sorry for anyone who shies away from feeling the full spectrum of emotions because they think that “negative thoughts will attract bad things,” (one of the claims espoused in The Secret). Yes, negative thoughts suck. They make us feel bad. But trying to be aggressively “happy” is not only potentially dangerous, it’s Pollyanna-esque and annoying.

[*Visualization, however, is one tool that I really, really like, mostly because it forces me to use my imagination and is quite fun. It’s nothing new, however; various self-help gurus have been promoting this tool for years. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s still fun, and, unlike some of the professional bullies who harangue you for an hour and a half in The Secret, it (most likely) won’t make you feel bad about yourself.]

**I kid you not; this was listed as his actual professional title during the video. When I grow up, I wanna be a Metaphysician!

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2 thoughts on “Blast From the Past: The Secret (and how much I loathe it)

  1. Yes! Thank you! (Which is what I kept yelling at the TV when Barbara Ehrenreich was being interviewed about Bright Sided.) I LOVED Bright-Sided. I didn’t even know what The Secret was until I read about it in her book. I am most used to the positive-thinking crap because I’ve been told it for 2 decades, since I started having health problems, and it was a convenient way for people to blame me for them or to patronize me as a good lil’ cripple. Bright-Sided showed me the vastness of the problem.

    I have a Demotivators calendar on my wall right now (by Despair, Inc.). I wish Bright-Sided was required reading in every school in the US. (Ehrenrech makes the case that positive thinking BS is a world-wide phenomenon, but I think a lot of aspects of it are exceedingly typical of American thinking/history/philosophy/norms. I just don’t buy that it is as much an almost universal belief system on this fanatic level outside teh US.)

  2. I stumbled across this while looking for information about the privilege of people whom society do not identify as disabled. I re-listened to my CD copy of the secret recently and kept finding it offensive. I struggle to explain why and your post has helped. Thanks.

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