What I Learned After 6 Intense Years in 'Positive Thinking' Training

My close friends know that in the 90s my wife and I spent six very intense years involved with a small organization called WonderWorks Studios. I started by taking their weekend-long Prosperity Workshop, which was a crash course in concepts popularized by the New Age movement— intentions, affirmations, ‘your thoughts create your reality’— focused primarily on one’s personal relationship to money. The teacher was Toni Stone, and the curriculum was her own blend of Landmark’s The Forum, divinity school, and New Age; an interesting and potent mix.  Being young and impressionable, the concepts in this workshop impacted me greatly and I wanted more.
Six years later, my wife and I had completed and/or assisted repeatedly at dozens of their workshops and weekly groups (Making Peace With Your Parents, Entrepreneurs Group, Couples Group, Men’s and Women’s Group, and even Feng Shui) and we both completed (twice!) their Teacher Training program, which makes us both certified Prosperity Teachers (WonderWorks is not an accredited school, but that could be seen as a plus depending on your opinion of our education system). Teacher Training was a year and a half long and consisted of intensive weekend workshops every six weeks up in Vermont and plenty of personal growth homework. The curriculum was that we would learn how to identify & overcome obstacles to goal achievement in ourselves and others by looking at people’s words and actions. As we did it twice, we spent three years of weekends every 6-weeks doing this.
Not long after we had completed the second teacher training program, we decided it was time to move on, and so we stopped our involvement with WonderWorks. That was nearly 20 years ago.

At this point I feel a need to pause and answer the question, “Why am I writing this?” My feelings about what I learned in those six years is complex and mixed, but largely positive: though I have scaled back my beliefs in metaphysical aspects of the training, the psychological aspects were solid, and on the whole I am better off for it. When I try to sum up the material to inquiring friends and I don’t want to enter a 30 minute monologue, I typically tell them it was ‘positive thinking training’. I always regret that summation: positive thinking is one of these topics that everyone thinks they know and everyone has an opinion about it, and yet when I talk to them more deeply I find they are full of misconceptions. Authors, psychologists and academics get in to the fray too, their titles lending legitimacy to their own ignorant positions, muddying the topic in the public’s eye still more.  In my experience, popular understanding of positive thinking leaves people thinking they know what it means but are largely ignorant of its nuances and implications. It is a topic people feel they can tease out over a cup of coffee, yet after six intense years of examination of the topic (and another 20 years of reflection) I find it still to be complex. (Example: ‘your thoughts creates your reality’— New Age pseudoscience or CIA endorsed neuroscience? Answer: it’s the latter.)
I still haven’t yet answered what I have learned, except to offer that what-I-learned-is-not-what-you-think. Yes, I learned about affirmations, but even affirmations are popularly misunderstood, I don’t read affirmations and haven’t in 20 years, and frankly they are among the least interesting concepts I learned.

This is where it gets difficult, as I must sum up in three paragraphs something that took me 1,000+ hours to begin to grasp and another 20 years to mull over, and still I consider myself more ignorant than not on the topic.

When one considers obstacles to goal achievement, one generally thinks about external circumstances.  ‘I would be able to achieve my goals if: I had more money, my family was more supportive, I had a better childhood, my boss wasn’t such a jerk, etc. etc.’ This perspective is the primary obstacle to goal achievement. Looking outside of ourselves for the source of our problems is a disempowering perspective. And it is highly addictive. We all do it, all day long. It is debilitative as it stops us from considering what we can do to improve our situation.

I have a very limited understanding of the concept of ego. With that caveat I will say that our ego acts as a defensive, protective shell. This shell has a negative side effect of protecting us from ourselves. It justifies debilitative, hurtful behavior, so that we do not realize when we are being jerks to others, or when our actions to protect one aspect of ourselves is at cross-purposes to some other goal of ours.  Our ego creates fictions (lies) about ourselves to protect ourselves from our own dark side. The self-deception is so good that we go through our lives completely unaware of the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, even when they are apparent to others. These lies start in childhood and are designed to fulfill some core need— I need to feel loved, I need to protect myself from hurt feelings, etc.— but they come at a price: they end up subverting adulthood goals. And because we lie to ourselves, we don’t even know that we are doing it. (Everyone does it: if you think you are immune, that is your ego defense talking.) We run on automatic pilot, unable to choose a different course of action that might serve us better. Our ego trains us to not question ourselves, ensuring its protective deceptions remain.

In those six years, I got a glimpse of some of the lies I told myself. I had the visceral, raw experience of pulling back my own masks. It is difficult and painful. I saw and felt how egos react to preserve their lies with defensiveness and righteous indignation. I saw firsthand how my ego can simultaneously protect me and hurt me, or protect me and hurt others. Once aware of the lie, I could ask myself if it still serves me, and I finally had the option to choose a new behavior. I got to feel what it was like to make a conscious choice to try out new behaviors, how frightening it felt, and the relief that followed when new behaviors began reaping new benefits. I now know there is a side of me that is hurtful, that I lie about it to myself, that when I am honest about it and take on new behaviors my life improves, and that surely there are plenty more lies I have yet to discover.

These are my greatest obstacles to goal achievement.

But wait… didn’t I say earlier that looking to external sources of problems was the greatest obstacle to goal achievement? They are one and the same, as ego protects itself by looking everywhere but itself for the source of problems. It is the self-serving logic of ego that has us take credit for all that is right in our lives, take no credit for everything that is wrong, and we see no contradiction there.

Just as you cannot learn to ski from a book, you cannot learn what I’m saying here by reading these words, it must be experienced. Identifying and overcoming problematic ego defenses is not easy to do without the assistance of others, but if you are curious for yourself, I’d offer next time you are feeling defensive or indignant you are probably close to one. Our default mode is to keep the defense up, but that is ego protection. What happens when you break through it?

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