When Positive Thinking is Not Enough

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There is a self help book by Louise Hay, written in the 1980’s, called You Can Heal Your Life. It’s about the emotional connections to disease in our bodies. According to Hay, our negative thoughts literally lead to our pain and suffering. Back pain is rooted in not feeling supported and carrying the burdens of life, Headaches are self-criticism and invalidation of self. Cancer is caused by deep secret grief eating away at the self. She wrote it at a time when there wasn’t much science to support her ideas, and it was really to be taken more as a way to become generally more aware of how our physical bodies respond to emotional wounds. While it was embraced in certain New Age circles, it was considered junk by most professionals. That is, until science caught up to many of the same conclusions. She doesn’t have it all right, but there is some old-school wisdom in not letting your thoughts eat away at you. While I don’t agree with everything Hay writes, she was on to something. She posits that the antidote is self-love. Through affirmations, people can learn to love their bodies and themselves in a way that heals both body and mind. Some people have been helped a lot by her ideas, and to generally be more aware of how we are shaped by our thoughts.

All that said, thinking happy thoughts will not solely fix the problem of abuse, because the problem of abuse is rooted in denial. There is now a lot of scientific evidence of the ways emotional stress gets stuck in the body once the danger has passed. Hay was right in pointing out that changing one’s thoughts is the key to health, but repeating “I am safe” does nothing to help someone when Freddy Krueger is right in front of them breaking down their door. In fact, it can be the very thing that prevents them from getting real help.

Before affirmations and positive thinking can work, there are a few keys steps a victim of abuse must take.

1. Recognize the abuse. Because of the problem of denial, this sounds easier than it is. People in abusive situations minimize what happened to them as a form of self-protection. They may flat out deny that abuse occurred, or if they admit what happened, they insist they are not affected by it. Their brains may have hidden or blocked out details that can only be revealed through extensive therapy. They may feel they have too much at stake and/ or be in the habit of protecting their abuser, they can’t admit it. They may suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Sometimes it takes a lot of work with a trained professional to be able to admit that something bad happened. Sadly, because of denial, many people will never get the opportunity to free themselves from an abusive cycle, or protect those in their care. they are unable to eliminate negative self-talk because they are unable to expose what caused it. If you can’t recognize it, you can’t fix it.

2. Take all the necessary steps to remove abusive people from their life. Again, this is hard. It requires courage and determination. It requires a desire to change. It requires standing up for what is right, usually at great personal cost. It requires vulnerability. There is no such thing as having a “positive” relationship with an abusive person. In many cases, going no contact is required. A lot of people don’t have the fortitude to do this. In most cases, walking away from an abuser also means walking away from all the people who enable them.

3. Once the abuse has been fully recognized, and all abusers have been removed, then is the time to heal the traumatic effects of abuse. Only when a person feels truly safe to open up and explore how their body responded to past trauma can healing occur. When the original stressors are removed, radical healing can now take place. Here is where they can let go of what negative beliefs they absorbed from an abusive situation and accept what is true about themselves.

Many people who are stuck in the denial stage are quick to jump to thinking they are healed when they are still rooted in their own self lie. They haven’t done any of the work. They are the ones who cling desperately to their happy thoughts, because they are freaking terrified to admit to themselves and others what’s going on underneath. They will explain away abuse and pretend they are above it all while still trying to hold on to having a relationship with their abusers and bear their secrets for them. They overreact and get defensive. They panic when someone asks them a direct question. They will get angry and will scapegoat any whistleblowers rather than face the truth. In other words, they are not at peace, even though they claim to be.

Bad news: the only way out is to admit what’s true. Good news: truth is the ultimate healer.

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