Toxic positivity and the thought-terminating cliché

“A life of faith involves putting ourselves in the position of an offering. Only by dividing good from evil in ourselves can we become living offerings pleasing to God. We should constantly separate good from evil within ourselves, according to the standard of God’s Will. If we neglect to do this, a condition is set up for Satan to invade.” Sung Myung Moon; The Divine Principle, Chapter 1, Section 2

I awoke to the harsh, tinny sound of a lifeguard’s whistle. In between long blasts a voice shouted, “Brothers and sisters, time to get up!”

My eyes peeled open and I looked around in the thin dawn light. I was laying on the floor of a crowded cabin, tangled in a sleeping bag that was only half on a thin plastic sleeping mat. The noise of the whistle made it difficult to get my bearings, and I mashed my pillow over my ears as I tried to remember how I had gotten here.

Mom had put me on a bus yesterday morning. It had driven all day, and after dark had begun winding its way up a mountain. Someone had helped me off the bus and brought me to the cabin by flashlight.

The whistle outside of the cabin died down, and I could finally think. I’m at Camp Sunrise. This is a Divine Principle workshop.

Later that morning, after a long, punishing round of group exercises, I followed my fellow campers to a lecture hall at the top of the hill. Inside were rows of tables. Brothers sat on the right, sisters on the left. At the front of the room was a large photo of True Parents and a chalkboard.

A second generation leader named Chikashi [name changed] approached the board and wrote Divine Principle: Chapter One before turning to us. He scanned the room, arms behind his back, bouncing up and down on his toes. “What is the purpose of life?”

Several hands shot up. A brother shouted, “happiness!”

A squint of his eyes said Chikashi didn’t approve of speaking out of turn. “And how do we find happiness?” He spoke this a little more slowly, a hint of a threat in his voice.

Less hands this time. Someone was called on. “By having our desires fulfilled.”

“Exactly. But what about evil desires?” Chikashi’s eyes swept over us, as though scanning for evil.

No one spoke.

“Do any of you ever have evil desires?”

I shifted in my seat, wondered if wanting breakfast counted.

“How many of you would rather eat instead of getting spiritual food from lectures?”

Oops.

“Ah, so our original minds are in conflict with our bodies. This is why we must achieve mind-body unity, to overcome sinful desires and live in harmony with God! True Father says, the first way to achieve unity of mind and body is to knock down the body. Strike the body. Deny everything that the body desires.”

I rubbed my hand across my stomach, dragging my nails across my shirt, trying to tell my hunger to quiet down.

“To what degree do we have to deny the body?” Chikashi looked at us, waiting for someone to answer. When no one did he said, “True Father says we must deny it completely, even to the point of death!”

Chikashi drew scientific-looking diagrams on the board, explaining each. The yin and yang for the dual characteristics of God; man as subject, woman as object. I’d seen them before but wasn’t sure how they fed me.

The thought terminating cliché

“I am your brain.”

Sung Myung Moon; Master Speaks; May 17, 1973

By the time I was eight years old, I had already sat through a number of Divine Principle lectures, although that summer at Camp Sunrise is the first that I remember with clarity. It was through those early and repetitive indoctrinations that my parents and leaders taught me that my doubts and questions about the Unification Church and its leader Rev. Moon were how evil spirit world and Satan invaded me.

They taught us that we should read 20–30 pages of the Divine Principle everyday because, according to the Church, a spiritual channel opens when we read. Leaders said that this allowed God to educate both our own mind and the spiritual world, including our ancestors (who might also attack us if we strayed). One leader said, “To open your original mind don’t stop reading when you have a question. Read the whole book in the shortest time and the next time you read you’ll find the answer.”

Church leaders also advised members we should read the Divine Principle a minimum of 20 times in order to be protected from Satan (or 100 times if we were a in a position of leadership).

Another leader even said, “I want you to read Divine Principle so much that your book is nearly broken. That is your minimum condition!” Others said that we had to “liberate our spiritual minds,” and in order to do that you had to stop thinking with your brain (physical mind) which then enables one to relax and liberate yourself from […] external problems.

If all of this sounds alarming, there’s a good reason. This training teaches individuals to use thought terminating clichés, like when someone is experiencing doubt, it is “evil spirit world invading,” so they stop engaging in critical thinking. These thought stopping techniques, also called a semantic stop-sign, are a mind control technique wherein loaded language is used to quell the cognitive dissonance that one experiences when encountering contradictory information or thoughts. It allows a person to remove the stress of the cognitive dissonance by avoiding all further consideration of a matter.

The concept was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, where he also referred to this technique as the as “The language of Non-thought.” It’s also explored in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the use of Newspeak, which sought to eliminate shades of meaning, ambiguity and nuance available to people in Oldspeak (standard English).

According to Lifton, the way “thought-terminating cliché [s] operate is that the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? author Charles Bufe says, “thought-stopping phrases include any use of language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts. One common example of this is the admonition given to Catholic schoolchildren to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off “impure thoughts.” The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose.”

In the book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control, the authors quote cult expert Dr. Steve Hassan as saying, “In the Moonies, I was told thought stopping would help me grow spiritually, and allow me to remain centered and focused on God. I didn’t know it was a mind control technique. I had been indoctrinated to believe that thinking negative thoughts would allow ‘evil spirits’ to invade me… Frequently, in many Bible-based cults, the ‘devil’ or ‘Satan’ is the source of the member’s doubts. Reciting scripture, speaking in tongues, and humming can be used to stop critical thinking.”

Dr. Steve Hassan has also said that “emotionally driven, loaded words, thought-stopping, and thought-terminating-type clichés, like ‘fake news,’ ‘build the wall,’ ‘make America great again,’” function similarly.

Mike Rinder’s blog on “Word Clearing” in Scientology offers an example of loading the language for thought-stopping.

“You think too much! Just be faithful.”

Sun Myung Moon; True Love; Volume One, The Restoration of True Love

It’s not just cults that use the thought terminating cliché. Perhaps some of the following are familiar:

  • “God never gives you more suffering than you can bear.”
  • “Only God can judge.”
  • “God has a plan.”
  • “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Or on a completely secular level:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “To each his own.”
  • “We will have to agree to disagree.”
  • “We all have to do things we don’t like.”
  • “You are not being a ‘team player’.”

My favorite: “It’s all in your head.” That’s one I heard constantly growing up in the Church. Whether I was voicing concerns about abuse or dealing with debilitating illnesses, the message from my parents and the Church leaders was the same.

Negative emotions, the Unification Church teaches, are caused by Satan and evil spirit world.

Thought stopping with positive thoughts

Now, on the other hand, sometimes thought stopping techniques can be used for good. Some people use them to help ward off panic attacks caused by negative thoughts and rely on clapping their hands, snapping their fingers, or snapping a rubber band on their wrist, and then replacing the negative thought with the more rational, positive one.

Growing up, my mom taught me to say “Cancel, cancel,” every time I engaged in what she considered to be negative self-talk. It was a technique she learned from reading books by Jack Canfield, founder of the billion-dollar Chicken Soup for the Soul™ publishing empire and author of books like The Aladdin Factor. And while that sounds like a nice, empowering way to help a kid, thought stopping to eliminate negative emotions, and only focusing on the positive, is the essence of toxic positivity.

As a kid I struggled with undiagnosed depression. Many days I had a hard time getting out of bed to go to school, and would curl right up under the covers when I got home.

My mom couldn’t understand it, especially because I was a straight A student, and participated in sports and extra curricular activities at school. She tried everything that she knew how, within the scope of the Church’s approval, to help me. She’d take me on long drives so we could have the one on one time that I desperately craved (as the eldest of five kids it was a rare commodity), started doing evening tea talks to cheer me up, and even bribed me with the occasional Dunkin’ Donuts outing. But when she was short on time or money, sometimes her favorite go-to was a funny little frenetic soft shoe as she sang,

”You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In Between…”

It almost never failed to get me to laugh. Even now I can’t help but smile as I think of the memory. But one thing I never learned to do was to sit with my difficult emotions to understand them or process them. That’s because in the Church they weren’t allowed.

Remember: negative emotions and thoughts were considered to be the realm of Satan. When you were negative, people said that you were being invaded by Satanic or evil spirit world. There were really only ever a few solutions that I saw presented when someone was struggling with emotions that were considered to be on the negative end of the spectrum: shame them out of someone, pressure the person to read more of Moon’s words, and if all of that failed, ship them off to a workshop — especially to the Cheong Pyung Training center in Korea where they would have to participate in ansu sessions that the Church believed would rid them of the evil spirits that were supposedly the cause of all negative emotions, as well as mental and physical maladies.

Somehow I managed to never get sent to Cheong Pyung. I suspect that mostly had to do with the prohibitive cost of the travel and subsequent workshops. But I did experience years of people telling me that my struggles were all in my head, that my negative emotions were just me “Caining Out” (a thought stopping phrase used to reference the Biblical brother Cain who killed Abel in a rage), or my “forming a common base with Satan.”

In essence, the words of the Bing Crosby song that my mom used to sing to me were the exact formula that the Church required in order for me and my behavior to meet with approval. At their core, all of the shaming and indoctrination was to enforce an environment of toxic positivity, so that one would never stop to question the beliefs or activities of the Church.

According to an article on Healthline.com “With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.”

What is Toxic Positivity?

Dr. Jamie Long, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and co-owner of The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale, and Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, define toxic positivity as,

the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

They say that, just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. They warn that by disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions, and deny the validity of a genuine human experience.

Some examples that they use of toxic positivity, and reframing into accepting statements are:

Toxic Positivity:

  • “Don’t think about it, stay positive!”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Everything will work out in the end.”

Affirming Reframe:

  • “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”
  • “Sometimes we can draw the short straw in life. How can I support you during this hard time?”
  • “This is really hard, I’m thinking of you.”

Isn’t it interesting how closely the toxic positivity resonates with the thought terminating clichés that we explored before?

According to Medical News Today, other examples of toxic positivity are:

  • telling a parent whose child has died to be happy that at least they can have children
  • urging someone to focus on the positive aspects of a devastating loss
  • telling someone to get over their grief or suffering and focus on the good things in their life
  • labeling people who always appear positive or do not share their emotions as being stronger or more likable than others

Why is toxic positivity dangerous?

Again, according to Medical News Today, “a positive outlook is not harmful. However, a person who believes that they must only be positive may ignore serious problems or not address underlying mental health issues.

Similarly, people who demand positivity from others may offer insufficient support or make loved ones feel stigmatized and judged.”

They list the risks of toxic positivity as including:

  • Ignoring real harm: A 2020 narrative review of 29 studies of domestic violence found that a positive bias might cause people experiencing abuse to underestimate its severity and remain in abusive relationships. Optimism, hope, and forgiveness increased the risk of people staying with their abusers and being subject to escalating abuse.
  • Demeaning a loss: Grief and sadness are normal in the face of loss. A person who repeatedly hears messages to move on or be happy might feel as though others do not care about their loss. A parent who has lost a child, for example, might feel that their child was unimportant to others, compounding their grief.
  • Isolation and stigma: People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, deterring them from seeking help. According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma can deter a person from seeking mental health treatment.
  • Communication issues: Every relationship has challenges. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive. This approach can destroy communication and the ability to solve relationship problems.
  • Low self-esteem: Everyone experiences negative emotions sometimes. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore their negative emotions, even though stifling them can make them feel even more powerful. When a person is unable to feel positive, they may feel as though they are failing.

So is it ok to be negative?

Unlike what a cultic group will tell you, it’s ok to have negative emotions and feelings. According to psychologist Mark Travers Ph.D., there is a powerful rule in psychology known as the “negativity bias,” which refers to the idea that humans are more attuned to negative cues in our environment, such as threats or challenges, than we are to positive cues such as rewards and successes. From an evolutionary standpoint, this had a survival function and kept us alive in dangerous environments.

His article on Psychology Today actually argues for positivity and that the entire idea of “toxic positivity” is harmful, but I disagree. While I will grant that having a generally positive mindset can be helpful for our sense of wellbeing, I want to posit that a negativity bias can also be helpful when assessing whether a person or a group might be harmful.

Again, according to Medical News Today, humans feel a wide range of emotions, each of which is an important part of well-being. They say that anxiety, for example, may alert a person to a dangerous situation or a moral qualm, while anger is a normal response to injustice or mistreatment. Sadness may signal the intensity of a loss.

Their stance is that not acknowledging these emotions means ignoring the action they can inspire, which again, I think puts us into a dangerous position when we are assessing potentially abusive or manipulative people or groups. They also say that failing to talk about our negative thoughts and emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, sometimes just vocalizing our negative emotions helps to reduce the power that they have over us, and can help us feel less trapped by them.

The same article on Medical New Today also states there is research showing that talking about our emotions, including negative emotions, can even help the brain better process feelings. An older study found that labeling and talking about emotions reduced the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions. This finding suggests that talking about feelings may make them feel less overwhelming.

According to psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, teaching people that emotions are not under conscious control would help them tremendously. Basic biology and anatomy explain that we cannot stop our emotions from being triggered, as they originate from the middle section of our brain that is not under conscious control.

In an article on Heathline.com, Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in anxiety disorders and self-esteem, says,

“Avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health. Failure to effectively process emotions in a timely manner can lead to a myriad of psychological difficulties, including disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.”

In that same article, Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, Maryland, says that toxic positivity can “give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.”

She cautions that, “judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive.” This is a really important point for understanding cultic abuse. According to Dan Shaw, LCSW, in his talk with the International Cultic Studies Association, shame is both a cult recruitment and indoctrination tool.

Shame, caused by toxic positivity, can be used as both a cult recruitment and indoctrination tool.

In an interview with licensed marriage and family therapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman, Dr. Caroline Leaf discusses the relationship between toxic positivity and gaslighting, saying that trying to be positive is not always a bad thing. It can, however, become toxic when we shame ourselves for having normal human emotions. This kind of toxic positivity, they say, can be a form of gaslighting, which is a manipulation tactic (intentional or otherwise) used to make someone question their own reality and deny their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

At the cultic extreme, toxic positivity is both a thought stopping technique and a form of gaslighting. The abusive leader does it to their membership, members do it to each other, and members also learn to inflict this abuse on themselves. At the end of the day, cultic control hinges on the members’ belief in the positive power of the cult leader as a key part of the cult experience. This power could be anything from believing that the cultic beliefs are true, to believing that their leaders are heroes, are all-powerful, and are all-knowing. It could also be believing that their leadership is somehow the only path to spiritual salvation.

In either event, the more followers cultic leaders have, the more power they enjoy. The more followers the leaders manage to gain, the less likely they are to be challenged. And the less likely someone is to challenge them, the better the cult leaders can maintain their control over the cult members. If everybody is just gaslighting themselves and others with toxic positivity about their experience in the group or with the leader, they’ll never be able to break free from that false reality.

With that in mind, it is vital for us to give ourselves and others permission to experience and validate our painful emotions. Sometimes we have to sit with our bad feelings, without judging them. After all, emotions are information, which can help us grow and learn. And, in some cases, a little bit of that negative bias can go a long way towards helping protect ourselves and others.

If you have been in ANY high control group or religion, share your story with the hashtag #igotout. Share on your own platform OR if you need to be anonymous and / or would like support, there are resources at the I Got Out website.

When you see a survivor share their story, let them know they have been heard. This is such a meaningful part of the movement. We all need to know we’re not alone.

If you know someone who has been harmed by a high demand group, share #igotout posts you think would help them.

Together we can bring awareness to how many of us have been harmed by high control organizations and end the shame or stigma we might feel about our experiences.

Tell your story. Impact lives. Change the world.

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on May 29, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor