By Lissa Rankin, MD
Although there is a grain of truth in the teachings, law of attraction folks put too much emphasis on thinking yourself well without acknowledging that illness is multifactorial, complex, and your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are only a part of what impacts your health. This oversimplified and distorted way of thinking suggests that if you’re sick, it’s because you were thinking sick thoughts, and if you want to be cured, all you have to do is clean up your thinking.
I once knew a law of attraction teacher who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. He was convinced he had caused his cancer and this meant he could cure his cancer. He had written books about the law of attraction and figured this would be his next book- how he cured his cancer by cleaning up his thoughts. He hired an energy healer to help him- and died six months later. When he died, the healer told me it was because he had confessed to her that he didn’t really want to live, so his thinking was very negative. She hadn’t failed to help him; he had failed to help himself. (This was a very common sentiment I heard from healers during my ten years of interviewing healers for my book Sacred Medicine. The healer didn’t consider it a treatment failure; it was the patient’s fault. Which just feels like… the opposite of healing, in my humble opinion.)
This law of attraction stuff is a dangerous way of thinking because think about it…if you’re chronically or terminally ill- and you’ve been saying your affirmations, reading Louise Hay’s book, chanting your mantras, and practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Byron Katie’s The Work or whatever thought-stopping practice you use to correct your limiting beliefs- and you’re still sick, that must mean your illness is your fault. You’re just not cleaning up your thoughts thoroughly enough. So you should try harder. Think cleaner.
By that rationale, if you’re sick, you must just be lazy or not good enough or doing an inadequate job of changing your thinking, or so the messaging goes. And if you’re well, then clearly you’re more pure of thought and spiritually superior, and it’s because you worked so hard to prevent your illness or, if you did get sick because you got sloppy in your thinking, you were successful in earning your cure and are being rewarded as such. (Ableist much?)
This is cruel messaging, people. It’s also bullshit that sells a lot of books and workshops with magical thinking and fake hope. People sometimes mistake my book Mind Over Medicine for being along these lines, and many “fans” got very angry at me and felt betrayed when I started toeing the line of public health guidelines and broadcasting pro-vaccine messaging. But anyone who thinks I don’t believe conventional medicine and technology are miracle-makers hasn’t read my messaging carefully. I have never suggested that someone should think themselves well if they have a disease conventional medicine has a chance of curing!
I believe our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings impact our health, but I don’t believe we can control every illness, injury, or symptom by how we think. It’s just never that simple, as much as we might wish it were.
This speaks to one of the paradoxes of healing I write about in my new book Sacred Medicine (which you can preorder here). What I believe (and there’s good science to back this up) is that our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings can influence our health, and when we treat our traumas, we settle our nervous systems, and this can have very real somatic effects that impact our body’s ability to reverse disease and treat symptoms. AND I also believe we’re not in control and don’t necessarily have the power to cure ourselves with our thoughts alone. Healing is usually just not that simple. And no amount of gaslighting yourself with affirmations or bullying yourself into not thinking or feeling painful thoughts or emotions is going to treat the traumas that left you with those limiting beliefs to begin with.
The way I deal with intention, belief, affirmations, positive thinking, and the way our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings can impact our bodies is like this. First, I believe trauma therapy is an essential part of every medical treatment if conventional medicine has failed to cure someone, because trauma, especially the sort of developmental trauma that causes Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) jacks up the nervous system, and this leads to chronic inflammation, impairs the immune system, disables the “rest and restore” functions of the self-healing ventral vagal parasympathetic nervous system, and makes people vulnerable to difficult to treat diseases. Will trauma therapy always cure an “incurable” illness? No. It’s not that simple either. But it can do nothing but help. When we effectively treat our traumas (sadly, most graduate school-trained psychotherapists are NOT trained in effective trauma therapies), then our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs naturally become lighter, less burdened, and more conducive for healing- without all the gaslighting of affirmations, positive thinking when something awful is happening, or law of attraction nonsense.
With that in mind, there is a baby in that muddy-ass law of attraction bathwater. I do believe in the co-creative process, and I do believe we can influence our reality, even if I don’t believe we can control it. Desire is potent medicine, even if it comes with unmet longing for a hard-to-reach cure. I like to think of it as casting your vote to the Universe- and your vote really matters when it comes to your health because it’s intimately tied into the will to live, which has been clearly shown to impact our health and longevity. When the will to live wanes, as can happen for people who have survived severe trauma and are still impacted by its aftermath, we can become vulnerable to potentially life and health-threatening illnesses.
But again, let’s not oversimplify. Casting your vote for cure isn’t sufficient. You have to do your part by taking advantage of all the medicines the world’s medicine bag has to offer. Don’t skip seeing the doctor, cleaning up your diet, experimenting with natural medicines, detoxifying your intake and your environment, and engaging in the spiritual practices well known to make you healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually. But assuming you’ve tried all that and nothing has relieved your symptoms, it might be time to work with the paradox of setting your intentions and simultaneously letting go of attachment to outcomes.
By all means, take the pill if it helps you. Try the diet that can heal your microbiome. Experiment with herbs and supplements and functional medicine routines if you can afford them. Do the therapy that can calm your nervous system, bolster your immune system, decrease inflammation in your body, and activate your body’s self-healing methods. (Sadly, functional medicine, alternative medicines, and effective trauma therapies are usually luxury goods.) But at the same time, you can hold this paradox of intention and letting go.
How? If you’re up for the challenge, put the full weight of your dedication, attention, discipline, courage, and self-care behind your desire to heal or be healed. You double down, claim your will to actualize the highest potential available, and fill out your ballot. In the co-creation process, your vote and commitment matter—a lot. If you really don’t care about getting well, if you’re not willing to make changes or sacrifices or give up health-harming habits or otherwise put effort into your recovery, if you’re not willing to stop spiritually bypassing, break your addiction to toxic positivity, touch your traumas, or feel your pain, if you can’t be bothered to eat healthier or move more or set boundaries with toxic people or start your recovery from addictive behaviors, then recovering from illness is likely to elude you.
Likewise, as triggering and uncomfortable as it can be to take an honest inventory of any benefits sick people might be getting by staying sick, if the secondary gain you might be getting from being sick outweighs the desire to be free from symptoms- then it’s likely your body will stay sick. If you’re not ready to let go of a disability check from a job you hated and don’t wish to return to, if you haven’t found another way to stop over-caregiving everyone else and put yourself first, if you need to be sick to have an excuse not to do the things you really didn’t like doing, like seeing your abusive family, if you’re more attached to whatever benefits might ride shotgun with the suffering of chronic illness than you are attached to doing everything in your power to make yourself miracle-prone, then that’s fine. It’s okay to get your needs met however you can. It’s okay to be honest with yourself and accept that you might not yet be ready to make whatever changes might make you not need the illness to get core needs met.
I’m pro-survival, so if chronic illness is part of someone’s survival strategy, I don’t think it’s fair to pressure anyone to let that go. We do what we must to get our core needs met. With that in mind, assuming you don’t have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes, and knowing that even if you’re all in, you still might not get your cure, it’s time to hold the paradox- cast your vote for cure- and let it go.
Having cast your vote, you take that ballot and put it in the cosmic dropbox, handing over the burden of your intense desire to get well and surrendering attachment to outcomes to whatever higher power or force of Love resonates with you, whether that’s God, Goddess, your higher Self, or something in nature you trust, like a redwood tree or your favorite lake.
With your vote cast, you are free to continue your healing journey- for it is a journey, and possibly a long one- with more lightness of being.
Certainly, some people who are sick aren’t trying to get well. They’re still eating crap, acting like couch potatoes, stressing over every little thing in their drama-filled lives, avoiding seeking out therapy to make their lives less full of drama, drinking or drugging or overeating or otherwise indulging an addiction without attempting recovery, ignoring their doctors’ recommendations, and generally being unhealthy. I have compassion for those folks, but I’m not talking to those people when I say what I’m about to say…
Assuming you’ve done whatever is within your power to optimize your health, assuming you’ve taken advantage of the resources you can afford to try, assuming you’re all in, the right medicine might be letting go of trying so hard. You might need to just accept what is in this now-waking moment and grieve whatever you might have lost and might not get back. You might need to feel the pain and frustration and despair and helplessness. You might need to hold yourself oh so gently and stop trying to strong-arm your cure. Maybe you need to even give yourself permission to try less, to resign yourself, to give up even. It’s possible to hold that strong will to live and total surrender in total paradox. Sometimes doing so can give you at least a moment of relief.
*I share many more tips like this in Sacred Medicine based on what I learned from a decade of interviewing mind body medicine doctors, trauma therapists, energy healing, gurus and others who do what they can to help those who have tried everything and failed to find a cure.
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