The Cult Of Positivity: 9 Inspirational Mantras I’m Very Sick Of Hearing

Everywhere I go, the magic of positivity is being touted. It seems that people think it can solve everything. Just smile, recite your affirmations, and will your problems away.
A positive outlook is helpful, and even necessary, but realism is equally helpful. While I know there are good intentions behind this movement, it’s not always what we need.

The only disability is a bad attitude.

Certainly a negative attitude is disabling, but no matter how glowingly positive you can be, it won’t influence employer attitudes, cure chronic illness, force the world to become accessible, or eliminate prejudice in a single bound.

Work hard and you’ll succeed.

C’mon, we all know this is patently untrue, right? Hard work is almost always required, but there are other things to consider, like luck, privilege, the nature of your disability, and the size of your network. In my experience, people who believe this are those who have either gotten lucky or have never known what it is to have the deck stacked against them.

All you need are positive mantras.

For some types of people, mantras don’t work and can even make things worse. Affirmations are great and all, but they’re not instant solutions. This isn’t The Secret: you can’t attract good fortune and happiness just by scrunching up your nose and wishing really, really hard. (Try it. I’ll wait.)

If you believe in yourself, others will, too.

Really? Reeeeeeally? You definitely have to have confidence and faith in your abilities, of course. That’s a given. We know we’re capable. We know we deserve an equal chance to prove ourselves. We know society doesn’t often give us the opportunity to show that we’re contributing members of society with as much to bring to the table as nondisabled people. This platitude is so absurd that I can’t even say much about it besides, um, … reeeeeally?!

If you want something enough, it will happen.

This is a very damaging thing to say, even if it’s meant to encourage people to keep the faith and commit to their aspirations. I can get behind that. If you don’t try, you won’t ever succeed. I just can’t ignore the fact that it’s almost entirely false, though, not to mention that it makes a ton of assumptions. Remember that old saying: you can want in one hand and spit in the other, and see which fills up first? Yeah, that.

If you’re polite and kind, you’ll influence people.

When I started the blog, I set out to be kind. I still maintain that kindness and empathy are underrated and they serve me well for the most part. The thing is, this line of reasoning makes it sound as though, with a smile and a gracious response, nondisabled people will immediately understand and change their perceptions and behaviours. It’s really rather astonishing that people expect this to actually work across the board. Few marginalized groups ever got anywhere by being nice all the time. Besides, I wasn’t put on this earth to educate people whenever they demand it. I enjoy it very much, but it’s not my purpose.

If you were more positive, it might cure you.

This is so offensive and short-sighted that I don’t even know what to say about it. People are always proposing outlandish cures for chronic pain or mental illness (and they love the idea that prayer will fix my broken eyes), and it makes my blood boil. It places the burden on us, as though the only thing keeping us from banishing our disabilities is our lack of faith.

If other disabled people can do it, you can, too.

This one drives me insane. It’s inspiring to watch fellow disabled people achieve great things, and it can spur others to try pushing the envelope, but everyone is different. You can’t assume all disabled people are the same. No one would say to a nondisabled person, “I know someone who can do ___, why can’t you?” We acknowledge that people in general have different strengths and diverse circumstances, so why doesn’t this apply to disabled people? (Personally, I found this statement demoralizing, and it made me feel terrible about myself for a long, long time.)

If you’re in a bad situation, just fix it.

This is a statement that is often put forward by people with disabilities, who assume that every other disabled person has the same advantages they do. It’s an awfully privileged thing to say, and it’s not very helpful besides. Believing that someone should just “figure it out” is often the result of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that simply won’t work for everyone. If you’re too poor to move to a more accessible city, unable to learn skills due to a lack of available instruction, or unable to afford an education, that shouldn’t reflect badly on you the way many disabled people seem to think it does. This is not an excuse to give up entirely and expect your life to improve. Yes, it’s important to explore your options and be creative—the world won’t hand things to you—but saying that someone can always “fix” their lives is condescending as all get-out, and discouraging as well.
Positivity has its place, and we shouldn’t forget that. Unfortunately, it’s currently in fashion, and it doesn’t look like it will be calming down any time soon. All you can do is ignore what’s useless, take what is useful, and find your own balance.

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7 thoughts on “The Cult Of Positivity: 9 Inspirational Mantras I’m Very Sick Of Hearing

  1. great post Meagan! a lot of these statements as you say there’s good intentions behind them but we sometimes don’t like to speak up about them just in case we offend but it’s their loss not ours and it’s all very well for someone to say keep a positive outlook but for some of us it’s easier said than done It’s like saying forget the past and move on now that’s easier said than done for some of us there are just some things in life that some people have a hard time forgetting about but to tell someone to move on from the past is almost like denying the existence of depression and mental illness.

  2. Hi Meagan. Great post as usual. Of course, it doesn’t help when the mass media keeps echoing these kind of sentiments; but when blindness organisations insist on putting out this crap in their newsletters it’s getting beyond the pail. I have no ambition to climb high mountains or run marathons. If I can leave the world knowing that more people think of disability as merely a difference instead of a flaw — and that I’ve contributed to that change — I’ll be happy in deed.

    • I feel the same way, and it’s one thing for the media to do this but quite another for blindness and other disability-related orgs to do it, too. Surely they know it’s damaging!

  3. So much of this sounds like wishful thinking. If these ideal conditions are met, this ideal outcome will follow. No, this is not how life works. I think at least some people are afraid of negativity and see all of it, no matter how much, as toxic and I don’t think this is necessarily so. I love feeling and thinking positive, but I don’t like it when it’s fake or forced, so I’m not any kind of fan of all these aphorisms and pat phrases, this silly bumper sticker pop psychology.

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