5 brutal truths I learned after “positive thinking” screwed up my life

This is my story of addiction. It’s a difficult story to tell, but I’m sharing it with the hope I can help those with similar problems.

The year was 2012. I was a freshly minted entrepreneur after leaving behind my academic career. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was nervous, insecure and petrified of failure.

Then something happened that gave me renewed hope.

I read the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It was written in the early 20th century and grew to become one of the most popular self-help books of all time. In fact, it probably invented the genre.

Napoleon Hill holding book 1937 5 brutal truths I learned after "positive thinking" screwed up my life

The secret is that I could create what I want with my thoughts

The secret, as shared in this book, is quite simply that the material universe is governed directly by our thoughts. If you simply visualize what you want out of life, those things will be delivered to you, especially if they involve money.

I’m ashamed to say that I devoured the book in one sitting. It was a good book. Hill is one of the best mind-porn-peddlers ever created. He spoke directly to me. He knew my fears. He helped to see that my fears were misplaced and I just needed to replace them with positive thinking and creative visualization.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. I moved on to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People which told me my friends were holding me back and I needed new friends that matched my new ways of thinking. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now convinced me that my fears and anxieties were resulting from my ever present ego.

My addiction to the self-help industry

I was addicted. For every bad feeling I had, the solution was to be found in one self-help guru or another. For every “failure” in my life, I just had to think differently to create better outcomes.

It wasn’t just the self-help books that provided me with solace. I signed up for programs, met with spiritual gurus, read blogs and listened to podcasts on lifestyle design. I traveled the world to face the demons inside of me. I embraced Emotional Freedom Techniques, Neuro-Linguistic Progamming, Reiki, chakra balancing, Transcendental Meditation and Tantric Yoga.

The problem was that “thinking big” was working for me (I even wrote an article imploring you to do the same). I received many indicators of success. Other successful people affirmed this. Sir Richard Branson invited me to his private island. Marina Abramovic personally asked me to attend her invite-only art exhibition in Sydney.

I just got photo bombed by Marina Abramovic

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I thought my new mindset was bringing success to my life. But the failures kept on piling up. The business was struggling.

Something had to give. I wasn’t free. I had become a slave to the endless pursuit of self-improvement.

I had stopped thinking for myself. Self-help destroyed my life.

I’m still on the road to recovery, and I feel some self-doubt from time to time about my new direction. But I finally feel free.

Here are 5 insights I’ve learned from giving up on the self-help industry.

1) Happiness does not come from the pursuit of happiness

I craved the feelings that I thought were those of happiness. I thought I was happy when I was excited, joyful and euphoric. I experienced these feelings, but I learned they were only temporary.

My constant pursuit of temporary feelings soon enough turned into suffering because the feelings didn’t last. This led me back to the pursuit of these feelings. The pursuit never ended.

By giving up my pursuit of these feelings, over time I became more content. I didn’t judge myself so much. I could just “be” without trying to be anything different than however I was feeling in the present moment.

2) Self-help reinforces the idea that you need to be helped

in galss 5 brutal truths I learned after "positive thinking" screwed up my life

Embracing self-help was one of the most sabotaging things I could do to myself.

The personal development speaker Julien Blanc says the following in his video, “Want to Help Yourself? Give Up on ‘Self-Help’”:

“If you’re someone who’s working on becoming confident, what are you constantly reinforcing? That you’re not confident to begin with. If you’re someone who’s working on self-improvement, what are you constantly reinforcing? That you need to be improved.”

Every time I felt fearful, or anxious, or guilty, I accepted these feelings and tried to find a solution in the self-help industry. My ego became an all-conquering phenomenon that needed to be defeated at all costs.

I reinforced the idea that I was a broken and flawed individual because my life wasn’t perfect the way that Napoleon Hill told me it could be.

3) Negative thinking is actually good for you

thinking negatively 5 brutal truths I learned after "positive thinking" screwed up my life

One of the major aims of the self-help industry is to stop you from thinking negatively. Positive thoughts will help you, right?

By giving up on the self-help industry, I discovered a brutal truth that no-one will tell you:

Negative thinking is actually good for you.

Here’s how the Stoics recommended practicing negative thinking, according to William B. Irvine in his marvelous book on Stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life:

“They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.”

Negative visualization techniques are used today by cognitive therapists as ways to combat anxiety and depression. They get you to visualize your worst fear and embrace the feelings as much as possible. Anxiety is a temporary feeling that can only last so long. By consciously embracing it we can get it to disappear.

4) Thinking is not the same as doing

The self-help industry taught me that all I needed to do to be successful was change my mindset. It encouraged me to do a lot of daydreaming, and even more introspection.

But what I learned by giving up on self-help was that thinking is not the same as doing. We can visualize as much as we want, but unless we take action it will never happen.

I was always so focused on fixing myself and waiting for things to be perfect that I never was able to take responsibility to get up and start doing what I was thinking about doing.

Stop waiting for the perfect moment and just get started now.

5) Your thoughts don’t matter as much as you think they do

The self-help industry convinced me not only that my mindset created my success, but that my thoughts had some kind of vibrational magic to them.

At a sub-conscious level, I became scared of my thoughts.

But the truth is that I don’t need my mind for my body to operate. Think about your body right now. Your hair grows by itself. The heart is beating right now without you thinking about it. While reading this sentence, your breathing has happened naturally.

I started to learn that I wasn’t in as much control as I thought I was. As a human being, I operated instinctively.

I let go of the illusion that my thoughts create my reality. They don’t. My actions do, and they are most powerful when they happen without thinking.

Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, check this out: 7 brutal truths I learned about life after giving up “positive thinking”. To see what I’m reading and inspired by, you can follow me on Facebook.


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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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