Forced dichotomies and such

I feel a bit ranty and complainy. I feel ranty and complainy generally about the way people these days seem to feel that every methodology, philosophy, attitude or approach has to be exclusive and extreme. I have particularly noticed this for a long time in education (being a teacher) and it cropped up again in this article. The main gist of the article is Mindfulness = Good; Positive Thinking = Bad (OK, I acknowledge that that is a gross over-simplification). What annoyed me about this article was the way the author attacked positive thinking for the first third fo the article. Positive thinking – and what she meant by this was inadequately defined – made people feel worse and was unrealistic. She used examples of positive thinking self-help fads such as The Secret, and (improperly cited) research that showed high self-esteem correlated with egotism, narcissim, arrogance and a range of related negative traits.

This is a clear example of the way many people these days seem to want to take on only one thing and take it to an extreme – or, want to completely discredit another thing to show how the one thing they’ve chosen is the one thing we should take on. Only an idiot would take examples of too-high self-esteem as a reason to discard everything to do with positive thinking. Any psychotherapist, counsellor or life-coach worth anything would clearly not be trying to boost the self-esteem of someone who had healthy, let alone scarily high, self-esteem. In my experience, it is usually those of us with low self-esteem who are perusing the self-help section of a library or bookstore. But suddenly nobody should use any kind of positive thinking. It’s like saying aspirin thins the blood and so nobody should use it – when it clearly has benefit as a pain killer or even as a blood thinner for some people when used in certain ways.

I am not saying that positive thinking is entirely perfect and what everyone should do, but I get infuriated when people want to throw out the whole idea and make “positive thinking” a taboo. Some forms of positive thinking clearly have benefit to some people, or else the University of Pennsylvania wouldn’t have a whole positive psychology centre. But some people obviously feel that we must either take on positive psychology completely or mindfulness completely. I don’t understand why it is no longer OK to take a reasonable amount of what is beneficial about everything.

As I said, this is a trend I first noticed in education. In Victoria, Australia in the late 80s – i.e., when I was at primary school – we went through a phase of education through immersion. We were not explicitly taught phonics, grammar, punctuation or writing structure but were “immersed” in examples and experiences from which we were supposed to absorb our learning. It was not ok to have an explicit grammar lesson with the students. As the daughter of a teacher, an avid reader and an enthusiastic writer, I did manage learn a lot. As an adult, I do have a better grasp of some aspects of English than my contempories, but I still struggle with correctly punctuating and structuring dialogue, which is a bit of a problem for someone who puts a fair bit of dialogue into her stories. By the time I became a teacher, there’d been a complete about-face and suddenly we had a strict timetable of explicit teaching in all aspects of phonics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, genre structure etc. Heaven forbid we actually do some writing just for the fun of it and learn with freedom and enthusiasm. Almost nine years one, I still find that educational philosophies are constantly being introduced that seem to demand we teach intensively in a narrow way, when all the best, most sensible teachers would use a common-sense mixture of the best of everything. Why do we have to deprive kids of any tool that may help them understand and become confident in their learning?

I think this is a negative trend, but it is insidious and we find ourselves buying into it without noticing. Do you ever find yourself trying to make up your mind between things that both have merit? Do you believe in medication or Cogntive Behavioural Therapy? Are you an Apple person or a PC person? Guess what, you don’t have to choose. You can actually endorse more than one treatment, you can identify with more than brand, you can incorporate more than one philosophy into your life and, because you don’t have to choose, you don’t have to justify your choice by discrediting one option completely.


About Zaiene

Life is large and I am small. Filled with over-complicated thoughts and little tendency towards action, this is me, doing the best I can right now.
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