Positive thinking is important. But an overly simplistic approach that devalues critical thought and ignores anything that is difficult or unpleasant can be harmful and hamper our spiritual, psychological, and societal healing. Even if you don’t particularly see yourself as a proponent of positive thought, the sentiment has seeped into much popular culture and modern spirituality. The idea that discussing one’s difficulties is a downer, that cancer is a blessing, or that examining patriarchy is negative are some disturbing manifestations of the positive thinking ethos.
Jung’s concept of the shadow signifies the parts of ourselves we do not identify with, and thereby repress. Usually these are the undesirable parts of ourselves that we have been taught are negative or wrong, like anger, weakness, sexuality. However, it may also include parts of ourselves we are afraid of, such as our power and genius. In depth psychology, acknowledging our shadow is necessary to personal growth, healing and transformation.
A naïve insistence on positive thought can mean ignoring the shadow, thereby stifling psychological growth. On a personal level, the consequence of this is a fractured consciousness (the opposite of wholeness, a supposed aim of spiritual practice), as we identify with our “positive” traits and disidentify with those we deem negative. It can also lead to projection, negative judgement of our shadow traits in others. There is a popular conception of psychotherapy as self-indulgent wallowing in pain and blame, dwelling and ruminating on our misery. But this is not therapy. Genuine therapy involves looking at our pain so we can understand its roots, so we can untangle them, and let our pain go.
On a physical level, ignoring the shadow means ignoring our pain, escaping with whatever takes us away, be it drugs, television, information technology, or an obsessive tendency to “live in our heads.” Paradoxically, pain has been shown to decrease when we look at it and feel it. Perhaps these observations could serve as an analogy for the potential therapeutic impact of looking at our psychological and societal pain.
On a societal level, a blind adherence to positive thought can mean an unwillingness to examine entrenched systems of power and oppression, including colonialism, systemic racism, and patriarchy. If I may be so presumptuous, these seem to be some of the most important issues of our time. How are we to address war, poverty, human trafficking, or the degradation of the environment if we aren’t willing to look at the psychological roots of these dynamics?
And of course, these levels—the physical, psychological, and societal—are integrally and intricately intertwined. Working on one level will affect the others; our healing requires all three.