In Defense Of Negative Thoughts: Why The Secret Doesn’t Work


Ever since the questionable self-help book and video The Secret first generated a buzz in 2006, practitioners of the Law of Attraction seem to be everywhere. Over the past few years I have encountered more believers than ever, partly because I now live in Los Angeles, a city with a reputation for fostering unrealistic dreams and beliefs (Scientology, anyone?).

Among strangers, acquaintances and even close friends, I regularly hear phrases such as, “I’m consciously manifesting my desires into my life,” “Choose your words carefully because they have energy and power,” and “Whatever you think will manifest itself in your reality whether you realize it or not.” They are convinced that thinking about, visualizing and stating their intentions to obtain their goals will result in achieving these goals. It’s all energy, they say, and like energy attracts like energy.

There are countless books, seminars, websites and even a WikiHow article detailing the process of manifesting your desires. It explains how you can get a new car by spending 30 seconds a day imagining how it would feel to drive a new car. That’s it! Before long a brand new car will appear in your life, or you might “win the lottery” so you can purchase your dream wheels.

Let’s get real. If it were that easy, wouldn’t all the schlubs at the corner bus stop be driving shiny new Porsches to their six-figure dream jobs in Hawaii? No, say the manifestites, the hopeless schlubs are either unaware of the Law of Attraction or they are doing it wrong. Though they may try desperately to visualize their desires, deep-seated negative thoughts are reaching out from their subconscious minds and holding them back, the poor doomed wretches.

To be fair, there is a kernel of truth in this. I do believe that our everyday thoughts and words can be more potent than we realize, that getting stuck in negative thought processes limits our potential, and that having a positive attitude goes a long way toward a happy and successful life. But this is as far down the path of thought manifestation as I can comfortably travel. Why? Because in my experience, doing has more power than either thinking or speaking. I have found my character and my life path to be defined by my actions and intentions, not something as varied, ephemeral and complex as the 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts that enter and exit my head each day.

Though we have the ability to wrangle or control this thought blizzard to some degree, why would we want to? Especially those of us in the creative arts. As a writer and actor, I see my mind as an open playground where any and every thought, good, bad or indifferent, is allowed to swing freely from the monkey bars 24/7. In fact, I find careful monitoring or censorship of my thoughts disastrous to the creative process. I need access to all the crayons, even the ugly broken ones in the bottom of the box.

The same goes for words. What if I were writing a novel about a psychopathic killer? Or an embittered curmudgeon poisoned by the venom of his own misanthropy? What if I were playing such a character onstage? Any of these scenarios would require me to think, write and/or speak a torrent of negativity, not just during the writing or performing, but in the preparation process. I’d be forced to spend a lot of time generating unpleasant thoughts and words instead of visualizing myself in a new car, which according to my Law of Attraction friends might condemn me to eternal failure if I’m not careful.

Poor Shakespeare. Writing a downer like Hamlet must have set him back years on his path to attaining fame and fortune.

But art, like life, is often dark. Some of the most acclaimed creative forces in history have been the most cynical or tragic, resulting in the well-known cliché of the tortured artistic genius. Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath are a handful that spring to mind. Even the world of comedy is filled with brilliant but miserable stars, as evidenced by the self-destruction of John Belushi and the recent suicide of Robin Williams.

By no means am I advocating depression as a path to greatness, but it is clearly possible for those with negative thought patterns to attain success, particularly in creative fields. In fact, scientists have discovered links between creative genius and depression or mood disorders; even mild forms of autism and schizophrenia are higher among professional artists, indicating that those whose brains take in more information with fewer filters are the most creative. As psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman put it, “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible, because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

How then can anyone — especially aspiring actors, musicians, writers, and filmmakers in Los Angeles — be sold on the concept that thinking and speaking only positive affirmations while shunning fear and doubt will lead to stardom? Our deepest fears and most painful memories can often be the richest source material for our creations, as the careers of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King prove. And as the careers of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David prove, whining and fretting over the most trivial details of our lives can also lead to success.

Artistic protestations aside, the rational thinker in me sees another big flaw in the Law of Attraction: it’s not a scientific law, merely a theory. Gravity is a law. Drop an apple and it will fall to the ground, unless another force stops it. It will never fall up or sideways. This has been thoroughly tested and can be relied upon. The energy produced by the labyrinthine network of thoughts and images in the human brain may be very real, but harnessing this force, let alone depending upon it to manipulate your life in the direction you choose, would be extremely tricky if not downright impossible. If it is possible, it’s certainly not something we have mastered yet. Those who claim that simply imagining a desired outcome will make it appear are grossly oversimplifying principles of quantum physics to the point of absurdity.

One could further argue that even if we are capable of manifesting what we want in our lives, this may not necessarily be what we need. Since when do we as humans know what we need? The most common manifestation attempts I observe seem to revolve around the themes of money and fame. But will money make us truly happy? Is fame what our soul requires to grow in this lifetime? Perhaps we need struggle, disappointment and failure just as we need joy, love and prosperity. Each one is a thread in the tapestry of life and an opportunity for evolution and self-discovery.

The single most damaging aspect of the Law of Attraction may be the painful regret and self-reproach people can experience when they try their hardest to think positively but negative things happen anyway. As the bumper sticker so succinctly states, “shit happens” in everyone’s life, no matter how diligently we practice positive visualization. But if we believe that every thought we have will manifest itself in our lives, we are likely to make matters worse by blaming ourselves when we don’t get what we want. Disappointment is then compounded by guilt and a toll is taken on our self image.

Personally, I believe in the power of action. I know I am a good person, and I am confident that my heart, my mind and my soul will guide me to take actions in the right direction, and these actions will lead me to success, however I define success. There will be bumps along the way, and I am guaranteed to have negative thoughts, express doubt and fear, and probably bitch and complain a lot on the road to my desired outcome. In the end, that outcome may not be exactly as I pictured it. But I believe it is possible to accomplish my goals by talent and hard work. Let my thoughts fall where they may.