L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
If you have seen the movie of The Secret or read the book by the same title, then you have heard about the so-called “law of attraction,” the power of thoughts being magnetic, goals being magical, and life destiny being totally within your control. All sounds pretty promising, eh? Yet how accurate and how realistic are these things? What do you think? Is there any over-selling here? Any over-promising that life will under-deliver on later? If you have an open mind and are willing to explore things, then come with us.
Strengths of The Secret
To begin, we want to mention the obvious strengths of the movie itself. In terms of production and quality, The Secret is a very well done film especially for developing a conceptual idea. It is engaging, moving, fascinating, and emotional. It is not a lecture, but a dramatic presentation with images that jump and move and dance and keep you looking and listening. So from the standpoint of an engaging piece of celluloid, it is very well done.
And from the point of view of content, there are lots of good points in the movie. What we appreciate most is the inspiration for taking charge of one’s life, giving up the idea of being a victim and using your response-powers to become increasingly responsible. There’s a strong emphasis also on abundance — that there are resources and assets and that we need to develop the ability to recognize them and activate them. The world is not a place of scarcity and lack, but truly one of abundance.
There’s a good emphasis also on taking a positive attitude to things — thinking positively, believing in the best, appreciating and honoring what’s good and positive. And there are a few steps at various places in the movie about what to do to get involved and take some actions in life. Several of the speakers acknowledge the importance of starting somewhere, doing something, and letting every little step count.
Weaknesses of The Secret
In spite of these strengths, there are numerous things that counter-balance them that are weaknesses to the film. So while the movie makes some valuable contributions, there are some parts of The Secret that are really weak and that need some bolstering up in order to make it respectable and intelligible. The two weakest facets is how the author and the screenplay writer over-simplified things often to the point of ridiculousness. And they did it by using frames of universality and either-or thinking. And the problem with this is that these are the language patterns of small children, not adults.
The Secret’s Over-Simplistic Approach
In terms of universality, the movie is rife with statements that …
“. . . everything you experience in your life, you attracted into your life by your thoughts.”
“It always works, every time, with every person.”
“Whatever you focus on is what you are creating, you are bringing it into your life. No exceptions.”
Ah yes, if life were so simple! If one simple statement could adequately summarize and explain reality. But alas, it is not so simple. There are many other factors, variables, and conditions that also need to be considered. If everything in your life, you attracted— then there can be no influence from others, from society, from nature, from political reality, from economic reality, etc. In fact, if everything is there solely because you thought it, then we have just discovered God; you are God. But, of course, the truth is that you are not that important or powerful. You are a fallible human being, not God.
The other childhood thinking pattern is the either-or pattern. And again, the movie is rife with them. It is shockingly used to think about emotions — there are “good” emotions and there are “bad” emotions and what the “bad” emotions mean is one thing, and only one thing, namely, you are out of alignment with your self. “The better you feel, the more aligned you will be.” It’s that simple. So the goal then becomes to not experience negative emotions. Either you are aligned with yourself and have good feelings or you are out-of-alignment with self and have negative feelings.
This goes against all that we have been learning for years in the Emotional Intelligence research and how emotions, both the negative and the positive, work effectively and productively within us. Just because an emotion is unpleasant or “negative” does not make it bad. These provide important and significant information regarding the relationship between what we have mapped out in our minds about life and what we actually experience in the territory. But The Secret would have you believe that the negative emotions should be avoided and ignored. In psychology such denial, repression, etc. are defense mechanisms of a weak and fragile sense of self, and not a healthy expression of full humanness.
“The way you feel is everything” The Secret asserts. So only the “good” emotions count, somehow the bad emotions, like the brakes in your car, are evil and must be ignored and avoided. If you focus on them, you make them grow, and that’s bad.
The Secrets Missing in The Secret
So though there are some good things in this movie, The Secret misses and leaves out many facets of the true secret of life. What secrets are missing in The Secret?
1) The Secret that Life is full of Systems.
Life is complex because it involves systems and systems-within-systems. In a child’s world, there are mostly simple choices between two things, either this or that. There’s no complexity. And there’s no systems. Yet it is systems like the mind-body-emotion system that creates complexity so that we have to think of multiple variables and those multiple variables operating at the same time and so influencing each other in multiple ways.
To think more systemically, we have to hold many variables in mind at the same time. And we have to transcend either-or thinking and grow up into both-and thinking. This means being able to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty so that we are not driven to over-simplistic answers. For adults in the real world, there are very few things that “always” work in a specific way. There are almost always exceptions. There are always other influencing factors, contributing causes, and differentiating contexts.
Yes we may attract things into our lives by our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, etc. But so do other people. All of our early life from birth to twelve or so is mostly created not by our thoughts and intentions, but our parents, caregivers, ancestors, culture, geography, and so on. A child born with cancer in its body did not attract that into its life! And what about the six million people slaughtered under Hitler; did they attract that into their lives? Is that what empowered Hitler to talk over a government and country? Don’t believe it for a moment.
There are constraints in all of those dimensions that we have nothing to do with. We did not create the world. We were born into the social, cultural, political, and economic worlds that we now live. Our responsibility is to first map these territories so we can understand what we have to deal with and then we have to develop sufficient knowledge and skills to cope with such.
2) The Secret of Levels of Awareness.
It would be such a wonderfully simple world if we only had one level of thought so that we could think one thing at a time. But that’s just not the kind of brain we have. We have self-reflexive consciousness which enables us to think about our thinking. We can have feelings about our feelings. And after our second thought or feeling about the first, we can have a third, and a fourth. This never-ending process is what we explore in Meta-States.
Self-reflexive consciousness means that we have layers upon layers of thoughts, feelings, awarenesses, beliefs, decisions, understandings, and so on. And again, this makes for complexity in the mind-body system. And because the higher levels govern and modulate the lower levels, this explains why the personal power of congruency and integrity also requires an alignment of the levels.
This means we can feel different emotions, good ones and bad ones at different levels. That’s why it is possible for someone to feel “good” about being depressed if one gets attention and sympathy. Or why one could feel “bad” about being ‘arrogant” and “selfish” and that would be a good thing. One can feel “good” about feeling superior and putting someone down and yet that would be a bad thing for personality and relationships. The either-or category of good and bad emotions is far, far too simplistic for adult life in the real world.
3) The Secret of Thinking and Reasoning at Different Levels.
Here’s another secret of human life — we think and reason and come to understand and map things at different levels. At one level we use classical science to figure things out, figure out Newtonian physics or Quantum physics, that’s what Einstein did. But even Einstein had to take his car to someone who knew Newtonian physics about mass, volume, and speed of a macro-machine like a car. A quantum physicist could not help him, or you, with a car. His thinking and understanding does not apply to that dimension.
Description and metaphor are two very different levels of reality. So the metaphor in the movie and book is that of magnetic attraction. In The Secret, they say, “Thoughts are magnetic.” Well, yes, metaphorically. But no, not empirically. And this confusion of levels has led to non-sense and ignorant statements like the following, statements asserted without any evidence (this quotation comes from the book):
“The law of attraction simply gives you whatever it is you are thinking about.” (p. 13)
“Quantum physicists tell us that the entire universe emerged from thought!” (p. 15)
“Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thought.” (p. 28)
These over-simplistic explanations create actually several toxic thought-viruses. The last statement implies there are no other factors, no other variables in the world except thought which, of course, is blatantly false. The first statement is indistinguishable from the magical thinking stage of cognitive development that occurs in children from 3 to 5 years of age, again implying that thought is the only creative factor and that there are no constraints of reality to interfere. If only!
And the second statement is completely undocumented; I have never read a legitimate book on the subject that even comes close to asserting anything like that. Yes, the indeterminacy factor means that we tend to observe what our assumptions and premises prepare us to observe since the observer influences the field. But that’s a very long way from saying that the universe emerged from thought!
There’s several dangers in all of this. Exaggerating, confusing levels, failing to index statements, failing to include the other multiple contributing factors etc. leaves the impression that people are “gods,” or at least almost all-powerful beings, in creating reality. Not so. Where is fallibility in all of this? Where is mortality? Where is social reality? Where are the constraints of reality?
So to ameliorate all of this, the truth is more balanced. We do create ideas and meanings and as we hold them in mind, we send messages and commands to our neurology to try to actualize them in our bodies. “Try to” make them actual and real, however, is a very different thing from asserting that thought alone absolutely creates your reality. If it did, the people in the back rooms of psychiatric hospitals would be some of the most powerful people on the planet instead of living such sad and pathetic lives.
Yes, thinking, feeling, believing, and intending do create and set up self-organizing “attractors” or attractions within us, but this is mostly a way of talking about the mind-brain relationship, the reflexive communication processes within us, and should not be taken as an empirical description. There’s still much mystery about all of this, and anyone even slightly educated about this area acknowledges such.
4) The Secret of the Distinction between Map and Territory.
The term “reality” is not a monolithic term referring to a singular thing. What is real depends on the dimension in which we are referring. The two primary dimensions are within our nervous system-brain (inner reality) and “out there” beyond all of our interpretations, understandings, information processing, communication about it (outer reality).
To fail to make this critical distinction confuses map and territory. Some people who confuse the two are fanatics. For a fanatic, his or her map is the one, the only, the true, the only true map. It is real. It is the territory, and woe be unto the person who questions it! Eric Hoffer called this kind of person a “true believer.” For the fanatic the primary purpose in life is imposing the maps on others, and even on the world.
There are others who confuse map and territory. One group does so by assuming that whatever they map is real or is going to be real. This is a delusion. The delusion is that they have that kind of power in their mapping and that the only possible thing that could be wrong in life, in the world, is that they are just not mapping enough— believing enough, imagining enough, intending enough, etc.
The problem in this is that they think that they can map anything, and that whatever they think, they make it so. This over-simplistic understanding of reality forgets that we are mapping a territory, and that the territory has to be taken into account in the mapping. It’s the old thing of taking a map of London and trying to navigate around any other city on the planet. It won’t work! Sure, there will be a few streets with the same name, perhaps a similar river or mountain, but for the most part that map is not designed for any territory other than London.
I’ll let you in on a significant secret of success: Mapping does not create external reality. By mapping we create some of our internal reality —our subjective reality so that it calls our beliefs, identities, hopes, dreams, intentions, etc. into being. And as our mapping interacts with the constraints of our body, our context, our mind, our nervous system, we are able to tap into the predispositions, talents, and potentials and create something new from all of those components.
5) The Secret of Distinguishing Levels
In the book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006) she quotes John Assaraf who says, “A thought has a frequency, we can measure a thought.” (p. 9). This same non-sense is also in the movie. Well, that’s probably a sexy thing to say, but it is just not so. The author has confused levels.
A “thought” exists at a macro-level of our phenomenlogical experience. What occurs at the level of the brain processing is the exchange of chemicals (neuro-transmitters, peptides, etc.) and the charging of protons and electrons as a bio-impulse moves along the neuro-pathways and the ions are exchanged in the cells. We can see and measure and somewhat understand these mechanisms, but these are not “thoughts” or “emotions” — those terms do not apply at that level. They apply as a much more macro-phenomena.
All of these bio-electrical and bio-chemical processes are the sub-strands and sub-layers that comprise a gestalt that we call “thoughts” or consciousness. “Thought” itself has no frequency. The overall functioning of the brain has frequencies, that’s a brain function. Within those operations of the brain, we experience what we call “thoughts.” Apparently, the author Assaraf has also forgotten that the idea of “frequency” applied to thought is a metaphor — a metaphor!
— not an empirical description.
6) The Secret of How to Effectively Negate.
Part of the over-simplistic and either-or thinking presented in the movie suggested that there is no way to actually negate a thought, memory, emotion, etc. The simplistic idea was to give no thought or energy to what you don’t want, only to what you do want. Yet human consciousness is designed so that we can think of what we don’t want, don’t believe, and don’t value. Are we therefore to pretend that this is not part of our kind of consciousness? Are we to ignore, or worse, or we to frame this facet of human awareness (negation) as “bad?”
Those in The Secret say, “You can’t say no and make it go away.” You can’t be anti-drugs, antiwar, anti-terrorism. “Always be pro things, never against.”
Ah, if only life was that simple and simplistic! Now it is true that regarding “command negation,” if you command it, we have to first represent it in order to then negate it. That’s why at the simplest levels, “Don’t think of blue,” “Don’t imagine a monkey on my shoulder,” invites us to create images of the very thing we want to avoid!
But that’s just one kind of negation. In Sub-Modalities Going Meta (1999/ 2006) I wrote an entire chapter on 8 kinds of negations and presented the many kinds of negation which enable us to effectively negate things from our lives and minds. After all, is there anything that just won’t “process” or “let in” to your consciousness for you to consider? I bet there are. If someone said, “You are a Martian and have red skin,” would you give that any entrance, any consideration, any energy? I wouldn’t. It just doesn’t process. I negate it and walk away from it by framing it as irrelevant and non-sense. That makes it go away.
Or what about your ability to so much “make up your mind” that you can stubbornly refuse to accept something? Do you have that ability? Can you be stubborn? Can you be obstinately stubborn? Think about something that you stubbornly refuse. That’s a pretty strong and empowered state isn’t it? You can now use that to refuse, to negate something. “Child sacrifice as a burnt offering.” When I think about it, my mental and emotional boundaries come up so that I would not consider child sacrifice for a second. My values are strong enough about the preciousness of life that they immediately negate that idea. In fact, the more I think about it, the more my values, understandings, and beliefs grow to negate it.
We’re delighted that The Secret has started a thousand or ten-thousand new conversations around the world about the untapped powers of human beings. That’s good. But The Secret is not the secret. It is just the beginning of understanding human nature and psychology and there are many, many secrets not revealed or exposed in The Secret. In this the film over-sells itself and over-promises and dangerously raises expectations which life events can then crush leaving the person burnt and immunized against true self-actualization and personal empowerment. That’s the danger of over-simplification.
We have written The Missing Secrets in the Secret so that the conversations people have can be more reality-oriented, more healthy and balanced, and may invite people to use the innate powers for unleashing more and more of their potentials and actualizing their dreams.
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist who has spent the last 13 years engaged in various modeling projects, from wealth creation, to leadership, coaching, and now self-actualization. Michael is a best selling author in the field of NLP and the founder of Neuro-Semantics.
1. In the Movie The Secret the key presenters are Bob Proctor, Bob Doyle, Joe Vitale, Michael Beckwith, Jack Canfield, David Schirmer, John Assaraf, James Arthur Ray, Esther Hicks, John Gray, John DeMartini, Lee Brower, Dennis Watley, Mike Dooley, Marci Shimoff Mira, Marie Diamond, Lisa Nichols, and some others.