“Positive Thinking” Was #WhyIStayed: How Self-Help & Religion Enabled My Abuse

The genesis for this piece was Twitter. The hashtag is heartbreaking but worth a read.

An unholy marriage of Islam’s teachings on gratitude and the late 90’s/early aughts obsession with “positive thinking” made my childhood and adolescence utterly miserable.

I was born a very obedient, literal child. There’s something about a sincere, thoughtful little fat girl that bring the worst out in bullies. My adult male relatives bullied me in the name of “toughening me up” & “teasing” me. Male and female relatives of all ages taught me through their behavior and words that because I was not pretty, I was utterly contemptible, worthy of either no or negative attention.

The people who loved me and cared about me knew about at least some it, especially what was perpetuated by adults. They stood by and allowed a little girl to be bullied to tears by grown men and women in the name of “keeping the peace”. Some of them agreed with the bullies that I needed to be “toughened up” for “the real world”.

I was taught all men were emotionally and verbally abusive behind closed doors. I learned that there was no escape. I thought that even when after I grew up and got married, I’d have to steel myself for abuse even as I walked daintily on eggshells so as to avert the worst of a man’s temper.

I hoped that school would mean friends, or at least classmates, who wouldn’t hurt me in the name of loving and caring for me. The closest I got to that were my teachers, who generally adored me for the very reasons others shunned me. My peers, for the most part, wanted to have nothing to do with me. Even the ones who did play with me would stop when the others would threaten to treat them the way in which they treated me.

The hold that positive thinking would take on me started with the religion into which I was born. I was taught that being an ungrateful, disobedient child would earn me eternal punishment. A certain verse in the Quran about how to treat one’s parents was spewed at me if I got even slightly close to questioning the worst aspects of my family life.

Positive thinking may not have started my abuse, but as I moved from childhood into adolescence and then young adulthood, it contributed to my gaslit acceptance of unacceptably abusive situations.  By then, I had learned that the verse was actually about keeping one’s patience with elderly parents and had nothing to do with being a child. I had figured out that my adult relatives were not infallible, and that some of them were actually incorrect. These revelations enabled me to start considering that I might not be the worst person to have ever existed, that I might not have deserved my poor treatment.

Around that time, my mother started watching Oprah and shopping the Friends of the Library used bookstore, both of which were overwhelmed by self-help messages of “positivity.”  I watched and read everything she did and then even more than she did.

The messages of thinking positively, attracting good vibes, and remaining upbeat jibed quite well with Islamic notions of inner peace through gratitude and submission to Allah.  I was taught at home, at school, and by popular media to be grateful for what I had, to think positively, and to remember how worse others had it.

Other children had alcoholic fathers who beat them, lay starving in the streets, were sold into slavery by addict parents jonesing for their next hit, were bald and emaciated from battling cancer, had been born without legs — how could anything negative that I went through compare to their suffering?

So I cried about my sheer loneliness and terror only when I was alone and was sure no one could hear me. Even as I choked my sobs on my pillow, I felt guilty. Such an ungrateful wretch I was for crying.

Deconverting from Islam didn’t help, at least not at first. I felt guilty for making my parents go through what they did as a result of my apostasy. I felt ashamed for disturbing the peace of the members of my extended family.

It wasn’t until my first boyfriend that I considered a different perspective. His assumption that feeling happy was at all an important thing sounded completely ridiculous to me. It took many years and much in the way of therapy and emotional growth for me to realize that he was right.

There’s nothing wrong with caring about your own happiness and emotional well-being in addition to that of others. Furthermore, using others’ unhappiness to silence your own doesn’t do anything to make them, let alone you, the slightest bit happier.

To this day, I hear the echoes of the gratitude-pushers in my detractors. They tell me that I should shut the fuck up because Darfur. Because FGM. Now, I know that what they mean. They mean “because it’s completely ridiculous to want better for yourself if anyone anywhere has it even slightly worse than you.” They mean “because we don’t like the idea of our happiness being at all disrupted by your agitations against the status quo.”

As much as I strove for the majority of my life to go along with the status quo, it never did much for me. Pardon my ingratitude, but it can always get better, and I’ll be damned if I’m not one of the people striving to ensure that it does.

“Positive Thinking” Was #WhyIStayed: How Self-Help & Religion Enabled My Abuse

5 thoughts on ““Positive Thinking” Was #WhyIStayed: How Self-Help & Religion Enabled My Abuse

  1. 1

    My background is totally different than yours; and yet this post resonates with me. I’m a white, middle class, USian, raised Catholic. I suffer(ed) from depression all my life. I was actually finally diagnosed with depression in primary school by a school psychologist, a diagnosis which my parents firmly rejected. I was supposed to be happy! I had my material needs met, a loving family, good schools — what was there to be unhappy about? Why didn’t I run joyfully from school like the other kids? Why didn’t I get excited about things? The problem, my mother concluded, was that I wasn’t grateful enough. I was so fortunate! She’d grown up in a poor family with an alcoholic/rageaholic father. Clearly, I didn’t appreciate what I had. And so I heard about gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. I was made to feel extremely guilty for being so lucky in life. My successes were always made possible by others, though my failures were somehow all my own. Doing right was never celebrated, but doing wrong was remembered and harped on forever. Growing up in this environment, I became a vicious self-critic. Living was painful. Painful was normal. I had no idea other people didn’t feel this way. I just slogged through life.

    Depression, untreated, only got worse and worse. Finally in my mid-30s I became non-functional, and sought treatment. I was put on medication, and got the biggest shock of my life. It was possible to be awake, alive, and not in pain! I could not recall ever feeling that way before.

    In the intervening two decades, I’ve had to re-think my entire worldview. I’m still working on it. I still struggle with depression, but therapy has helped immensely and meds keep me from the depths of darkness, if not out of the shadows. I’ve had to learn to engage with a world where happiness is possible and even something to strive for. I’ve had to learn proper guilt. I’ve had to learn constructive self-criticism. It is hard work, and never ending. It is worth doing.

    1. 1.1

      Those invested in the status quo have a vested interest in ensuring it continues no matter what background or trappings they have. I’m so glad that you’re now able to at least work on it.

  2. 2

    There’s nothing wrong with caring about your own happiness and emotional well-being in addition to that of others. Furthermore, using others’ unhappiness to silence your own doesn’t do anything to make them, let alone you, the slightest bit happier.

    This needs to be on billboards.

    The cult of positivity might as well be the cult of the status quo. My mom’s into the same shit– I’m lucky in that my family isn’t abusive, but it did make for some interesting conflict resolution between my sisters and me. Or, rather, led to NO conflict resolution.

  3. 3

    The cult of positive thinking’s message is so strong on the victim blaming and handwaving, that sometimes any attempt to bring up concerns about or establish boundaries with an abusive individual (or system) is chalked up to character flaws on the part of the victim for not being able to forgive, for holding grudges, for being bitter, for not letting the past be the past. The message is, don’t actually try to change things, just pretend things have changed, that’s easier for your abuser and the rest of us.

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