Gabor Maté

“The first step in retracing our way to health is to abandon our attachment to what is called positive thinking. Too many times in the course of palliative care work I sat with dejected people who expressed their bewilderment at having developed cancer. “I have always been a positive thinker,” one man in his late forties told me. “I have never given in to pessimistic thoughts. Why should I get cancer?” As an antidote to terminal optimism, I have recommended the power of negative thinking. “Tongue in cheek, of course,” I quickly add. “What I really believe in is the power of thinking.” As soon as we qualify the word thinking with the adjective positive, we exclude those parts of reality that strike us as “negative.” That is how most people who espouse positive thinking seem to operate.

Genuine positive thinking begins by including all our reality. It is guided by the confidence that we can trust ourselves to face the full truth, whatever that full truth may turn out to be. As Dr. Michael Kerr points out, compulsive optimism is one of the ways we bind our anxiety to avoid confronting it. That form of positive thinking is the coping mechanism of the hurt child. The adult who remains hurt without being aware of it makes this residual defence of the child into a life principle. The onset of symptoms or the diagnosis of a disease should prompt a two-pronged inquiry: what is this illness saying about the past and present, and what will help in the future? Many approaches focus only on the second half of that healing dyad without considering fully what led to the manifestation of illness in the first place.

Such “positive” methods fill the bookshelves and the airwaves. In order to heal, it is essential to gather the strength to think negatively. Negative thinking is not a doleful, pessimistic view that masquerades as “realism.” Rather, it is a willingness to consider what is not working. What is not in balance? What have I ignored? What is my body saying no to? Without these questions, the stresses responsible for our lack of balance will remain hidden. Even more fundamentally, not posing those questions is itself a source of stress. First, “positive thinking” is based on an unconscious belief that we are not strong enough to handle reality. Allowing this fear to dominate engenders a state of childhood apprehension. Whether or not the apprehension is conscious, it is a state of stress. Second, lack of essential information about ourselves and our situation is one of the major sources of stress and one of the potent activators of the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress response. Third, stress wanes as independent, autonomous control increases.

One cannot be autonomous as long as one is driven by relationship dynamics, by guilt or attachment needs, by hunger for success, by the fear of the boss or by the fear of boredom. The reason is simple: autonomy is impossible as long as one is driven by anything. Like a leaf blown by the wind, the driven person is controlled by forces more powerful than he is. His autonomous will is not engaged, even if he believes that he has “chosen” his stressed lifestyle and even if he enjoys his activities. The choices he makes are attached to invisible strings. He is still unable to say no, even if it is only to his own drivenness. When he finally wakes up, he shakes his head, Pinocchio-like, and says, “How foolish I was when I was a puppet.”

Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress
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When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Maté
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