Wednesday, January 23, 2013

#103: Think Negative Thoughts

Have you heard of The Secret? I had, long before I was diagnosed. I knew the premise: individuals attract the energy they put out into the world. I knew the story about the woman who attributed her cancer survival to positive thinking and a commitment to putting positive energy out in the world. As a long-standing pessimist and negative thinker, my reaction to the impact my thoughts would have on my healing was, naturally: 'I'm doomed.'

In a discussion with a colleague who had just finished breast cancer treatment, I confessed my concern. She was the first person ever to reassure me that "you can't expect not to have any negative thoughts, and you shouldn't feel bad when you do". Since hearing those insightful words, I've been trying to undo the damage The Secret and other positive thinking + cancer rhetoric have done to me. Because I am such a thorough pessimist and negative thinker, being told to Think Positive! or Focus on the Bright Side! doesn't make those thoughts magically appear. Instead, it causes me to feel guilty and wronged because I am so deeply unable of easily conjuring up those thoughts. 

In discussions with friends enduring plights of their own, the damage of this alter-your-thought-process-rhetoric seems to be quite widely acknowledged. In an Atlantic article on Buddhism and Happiness, the author summarizes the purpose of a Buddhist meditation retreat which offers a partial response:
"[...] you should just observe things. Observe your breath, your sensations, your emotions, sounds, whatever. And, as you observe these things, you're not supposed to make value judgements  So, for example, though anxiety normally feels bad, if you encounter a wave of it while meditating, you're supposed to examine it with as much detachment as possible, doing your best to see it as neither good nor bad but just as a fact."
Now that is a coping skill I can use! The alternative - examining my thoughts and placing them up against some version someone else determined was positive - is a quick and easy way to make anyone, but particularly the newly diagnosed, feel guilty, badly, worried and ultimately, negatively. Thoughts like 'what if I don't get better?' 'Why is so-and-so being such a terrible friend?' 'Chemo sucks and I hate it, hate it, hate it!!!' are normal.

Nobody but that one colleague told me that before my diagnosis. What I wish someone had told me was that observing these thoughts, free of value-judgements, would be important as a way to take stock of my thoughts, their resulting emotions, and my state of mind.

As a survivor, I'm getting better at this. When I feel worried, upset or sad, I try not to think too much about it. That's called a 'thought about a thought', and in my un-expert opinion, it's the root of my anxiety. Instead, I try to do what yoga instructors suggest, acknowledge the emotions I have as rolling waves that wash in and wash out. It's not something I have to be in control of, but an experience instead that I should aim to be aware of.

A negative thought doesn't doom me to a life of poor health. It's natural, normal and common. It's a part of my experience as much as any other positive thought. And frankly, I often feel more comforted by those negative thoughts than any other falsely constructed positive one I ever conjured up. 


  1. I think you've nailed it on the head in your last sentence. Thinking false thoughts just isn't going to work, and I reckon only makes us feel worse. The Buddhism advice to just observe the negativity or anxiety is very interesting. It's a good idea, and must take away the momentum of the stress. This would be a good quote to pass on to those newly diagnosed.

    Thanks, Steph. ~Catherine