I'm Terrified of Positive Thinking

Every time I let myself hope that something will go right in my life, the exact opposite happens. Don't worry, it's not as dire as it sounds.

Dec 12, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Yesterday, when I was still sleepy-eyed and blurry on my way to work, a tiny old woman pressed her bus transfer ticket into my palm.

"Here," she said as I made room for her to get off the MUNI. "You take this, it's yours."

"Um," I said, bleary. "Thanks? Thank you, ma'am."

She just nodded at me and patted my hand. It wasn't much, really -- she saved me two dollars, which goes a long way the week before payday but wouldn't have killed me to pony up -- but fairy tales and my mother taught me that acknowledging the gifts old women give you is a matter of no small importance. I thanked her again and climbed onto the bus, tucking the ticket into my front pocket like a talisman.

Ever since then, I've been waiting for something bad of equal magnitude to happen.

Something like a year ago, I started picking out patterns in my luck. My weeks had themes of bad, good, or neutral, I decided retroactively, and the best way to guard against disappointment would be to try to predict their turnings. They tend to alternate, though not always.

No matter the way it goes, it happens in threes; it was almost a relief when, last Friday, I left my wallet at home and slept through my alarm and melted my work computer's hard drive all on the same day, because it meant Saturday and Sunday would be free and clear. 

Similarly, when three great things happened on Monday the week before, I spent the rest of the week holding my breath, waiting for the world to crack. 

Unfortunately, it's rarely the other way around. Sometimes, after a particularly dogged week, I'll dig my nails into my cheeks and think, "At least next will be better. It's a good week's turn." Of course, that's when the system fails, and the next week is even worse. Jinxed!

And it's not just the week-luck that I get superstitious about. I've had a pretty great year, all things considered -- getting a "One-Handed Read" published in BUST, dating wonderful people, turning things around in my day job, and, of course, writing for xoJane -- but none of it came from "positive visualization." 

In fact, it was the opposite: Every time I got my hopes up, even a little, I'd get a submission rejected or have a fight with my dates. I'm a daydreamer, and that's what always gets me -- at night, I'll lull myself to sleep with visions of book signings and cold-mouthed kisses in the rain, and in the morning I'll have somehow willed my own undoing. 

I've never read "The Secret," but the Internet tells me that it's a book about believing in something so hard that it eventually happens. I sometimes suspect I have the opposite kind of magic: the harder I believe something won't happen (or, best, if I forget I hoped for it in the first place), the more likely it will. I've written before about envisioning the deaths of my loved ones as a protection tactic, and this is a similar, if less morbid, preemptive measure.

It's not as if this negative thinking makes me work harder or persevere more intensely. I usually keep it tucked away for when events have spun beyond my control: after the book proposal is emailed or the post goes up online, I'll just remember a little sing-song, "This probably won't work, but no big deal if it doesn't."

In less hippy-dippy terms, I guess this stems from the lowered risk that comes with lowered expectations. I can't be disappointed with failure if I never thought I would succeed in the first place. I'll even shush other people, friends, when they kindly try to bolster my confidence, as if some stupid trickster god is waiting for my loved ones to voice enough hubris on my behalf to justify him punching me in the balls. 

Blame it on my Catholic upbringing, but trusting in good things and not fearing the bad always reminds me of the kids that die too early in horror movies because they were hanging off the edge of a railing or standing with their back to an empty house. "Watch me!" it feels like I'm telling the universe, grinning, as a black tongue snakes around my ankle. 

Weirdly, I'm not a particularly negative person on a day-to-day basis. I actually consider myself an optimist, in that when I'm confronted with actual, real-life problems I tend to believe everything will turn out all right. It's only when it comes to goals and aspirations that I fiercely resist curling into a comforting hypothetical future. Greek Stoics called this a "premeditation of evils," and New York businessmen apparently use it to absolve short-term anxiety. I'm not sure it's doing much for the long-term, low-intensity hum of nerves that twang under my skin every time two bad things happen in a day, but, hey, I'll take it.

This is not to say that positive thinking is ineffective for everyone. And at the least, it's soothing, like slipping into a warm bath. These days, I still fantasize myself to sleep, but it's usually about absurd things, like charming Emma Stone or wowing everyone with my dance moves the next time I hit the town. The farther away from my real life I stay, the less the likelihood that I'll somehow invite disaster.  Even during the last election, I spent most of October trying to visualize Romney as President, just so I could get used to the knot in my stomach.

For someone who's, in most respects, pretty practical, this slip into superstition is a little surprising. "Do you believe hardships come in threes?" I asked my best friend on the phone recently, and he laughed. 

"No. You're super weird." He's in med school across the country, where things like believing in ghosts and asking for your date's astrological sign are professional liabilities. I miss him like crazy. As tempting as it is, though, I try my hardest not to daydream about where our friendship will be in five years.

Kate is not always eminently practical about her worries on Twitter at @katchatters.