Accentuate the Negative

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 24, 2021, with a different title.

Negative Capability

While researching my articles on the books of Oliver Burkeman, I came across one called The Power of Negative Thinking. This sounded promisingly paradoxical, a case for the positivity of negativity?

I cast my mind back to my studies of English literature. John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 22 December 1817, described a conversation a few days previously with Charles Dilke. Keats had pondered about “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Although Keats used the phrase only in passing in a letter, it has survived down the ages. It provided the title in 2018 for the 21st studio album by that great survivor Marianne Faithfull, which drew high praise from reviewers, one of whom wrote, “it bristles with warmth and life, a 40-minute reason to stay positive.”

The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability to perceive and recognise truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning. Another way of expressing what Keats was getting at would be suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. That would be a useful thing in these days when social media allows everyone to shout their opinions without any knowledge or facts to back them up.

Paradox and Contrarianism

I clicked on the image of The Power of Negative Thinking by Oliver Burkeman and purchased it for my Kindle. Or so I thought. I was surprised to find that what I had actually bought was a book by Tony Humphreys, not Oliver Burkeman. I did not complain because I was intrigued. Tony Humphreys’s dog bit me on more than one occasion. More about that later.

I felt somewhat cheated by what seemed to be verbal sleight of hand. I was looking for some original paradoxical thoughts about the positivity of the negative. Unfortunately, Humphreys is no GK Chesterton.

Time after time, Humphreys simply replaces the word “negative” with the word “protective”. Much of this book is devoted to illustrating the very many “creative strategies that human beings adopt to protect themselves in the face of emotional perils”. He often asserts that “there is no such thing as negative thinking. “Rather I believe that people creatively develop protective patterns of thinking to reduce the possibility of further hurt, humiliation and rejection.” Later we will see what happened when he asserted that there was no such thing as autism.

Humphreys asserts: “By relabelling ‘negative’ thinking as ‘protective’ thinking, the person is no longer being criticised for the way she thinks but, on the contrary, is being given recognition for the need for protection.” Humphreys sees negative feelings as being creative. A reader who was minded to be negative about the book might say that the notion is unhealthy and might substitute ‘delusional’ for ‘creative’. “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”

Sometimes it seems to me that Humphreys is saying that playing the victim is a valid ‘protective’ strategy. He argues that deep emotions that are usually repressed within oneself are the result of one’s upbringing and he is not shy about giving details of his own suffering. He was “constantly and unfavourably compared with his twin brother” and felt that he was not given credit for caring for his invalid mother. He left school at fifteen and joined a monastery at eighteen. He was in the monastery for seven years and a month before taking his vows, “having lost all belief in Catholicism”. His devoutly religious family rejected him. 

Autism Controversy

Humphreys has something of the status of a guru in Ireland. He often appears on TV and writes frequently in the popular press. He practices as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist.

In an article in the Irish Examiner in February 2012, Humphreys suggested that there was no such thing as autism. “When you use the word autism you’re suggesting it’s a fact. Autism is a theory. It is not a fact,” he said on TV3′s Ireland AM. He claimed that there is a link between what are diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorders and parents not expressing love and affection to their children. This, not surprisingly, was distressing for parents struggling to bring up autistic children. Dr Michael Drumm, the head of the PSI (the Psychological Society of Ireland) said that the views expressed by Humphreys were “not supported by the vast body of research”. Kevin Whelan, chief executive of Irish Autism, wrote that Humphreys was resurrecting a theory that was popular 70 years ago: “It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.”

The Irish Examiner removed the article from its website. The Press Ombudsman of Ireland adjudicated that “the offence was not only widespread but grave, could have been interpreted as gratuitously provocative, and might have been avoided or at least minimized if the topic had been presented in a different manner”. Indeed, Humphreys did not do himself any favours.

According to Wikipedia: “He believes that these ‘labelled disorders’ [oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyslexia]are avoidant behavioural adjustments that enable a threatened child “to survive in a painful world of conditionality” and are curable through “unconditionally valuing and caring” relationships. He has made similar claims for emotionally challenging environments causing the onset of asthma. Both professional and advocate groups have decried his theory of the aetiology of schizophrenia.”

Writing this article made me think about wider issues which will require a separate article to address. The wider issues are the scientific basis of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and the expertise and qualifications of gurus and counsellors. Freud was a fraud, a quack not a scientist. He made stuff up. Here are a few thoughts sketched out in advance of that.


My last job in the real and sordid world of paid employment had the grand title “Ministerial advisor on child protection”. The reality was that I was a lowly civil servant at the Department of Health in London. One of my “betters” actually called me “good and faithful servant” to my face expecting me to be pleased. My job was to churn out words for my betters and to write speeches for ministers, generally guide them as to what was the best thing to say. In the twilight of my career I clinked glasses with the High Primate of All Ireland (that was Archbishop Robin Eames, not a monkey) in the bar of the House of Lords. Baroness Cumberlege had provided me with a large gin and tonic for writing a speech for her. My superior officers were responsible for drafting the groundbreaking Children Act of 1989 which gave every child the right to protection from abuse and exploitation and the right to inquiries to safeguard their welfare. Its central tenet was that children are usually best looked after within their family. Not one person involved in the drafting of Children Act of 1989 had children. Most of the people working on my section did not have children.

Tony and his wife Helen Ruddle do not have children but they feel confidently qualified to give counselling to parents who are failing to cope on the rockface of parenthood.

What are their qualifications? Tony tells us about his troubled childhood but is a troubled childhood sufficient qualification to help others? He does not have a “normal” childhood to use as a base or a comparison.

You can read many of Tony Humphreys’s articles on his blog  but I have not been able to find any peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals.

In academic circles in the west, it is considered poor form to call oneself “doctor” unless one is a medical practitioner. I have noted that many writers in Sri Lanka proudly call themselves “doctor” even though their field of expertise is somewhat suspect and they would have no clue how to deal with a verruca. An Irish blogger wrote back in 2012: “The title Doctor is widely employed. Even the bishops use it, and while they’ll certainly treat you with disdain, they won’t attempt to treat you for any medical condition. Context is all-important, and it seems to me that the juxtaposition of the words Doctor and Clinical create a powerful alignment of expectations in a person’s mind. Therefore, the question needs to be asked, if somebody uses the title Doctor, while at the same time describing himself as a clinical psychologist, is he creating the impression that he is a medical practitioner?”

Tony Humphreys claims to be Ireland’s most influential psychologist but his peers take issue with that claim. According to his Wikipedia entry, he “left school at 15, put himself through night school to obtain a degree and higher diploma in Physical Education, followed by an MA in 1977 and PhD in 1983 in Psychology. (1983), His thesis was an experimental investigation of hypnosis as an adjunct to the behavioural treatment of phobias.” Humphreys also studied theology, a subject which is not big on scientific fact. The world was created in seven days, allegedly.

A couple of bloggers have made trenchant analyses of Humphreys writings and cast doubt on his qualifications to be a guru about child-rearing or autism or about anything. One draws attention to the anecdotal approach which is often used in this particular book. “This is anecdotal, and irrelevant to autism. Humphreys produces no figures or research to support his assertion. He relies on his status as a TV guru.” And this : “The sorry bit is that someone who was given a PhD by an Irish institution seems so detached from the basic principles of clear thinking, and even sorrier is the fact that this man has written many self-help books relied on by vulnerable people to try and fix their lives.” His PhD was about hypnosis. PE and theology?

Autism Spectrum — Tony Humphreys, Clinical Psychologist, Blames the Parents


In this book Humphreys writes: “What I like about my neighbourhood is that people seem to respect and value differences between one another and there is no strong push towards conformity, not even towards religious conformity, although the latter has been a strong feature of local community life. There is also a friendliness between people. As in all communities, you have the ‘rogue’, the ‘sharp operator’ and the over inquisitive person, but you learn, sometimes after some personal cost, to guard against the exploitative behaviours of these people.”

I was also a member of that community. Other members referred to Tony and his wife Helen reverentially as “the doctors”.  Tony Humphreys was, in a sense, my next door neighbour on the left hand side of the lane even though his house was a couple of miles away. We were rivals in the sense that we were in competition for the one copy of the London Observer that Woods’s store had available every Sunday. I asked Donal Woods if he could save a copy for me. Every Sunday morning, I made the ten-minute trek into Lisgoold village to buy my papers. Most Sundays the Observer was not available because, according to the girl in the shop, “the Doctor” had got there first. I tried going earlier, but the papers had not arrived.

I used to pass the Humphreys’ house regularly as I did a brisk and lengthy walk up the steeper lanes (no paunch for me in those days!). I and my wife sometimes had desultory but reasonably friendly conversations with Tony and Helen. On more than one occasion, when I was walking on my own, their Alsatian dog chased and harried me and barked aggressively at me. On two separate occasions it bit me on the legs. When I mentioned this to Tony and Helen a froideur set in. The kind of response you get from Sri Lankan customer service people when you point out a deficiency: “Well, no one else has complained”. The Wikipedia article on Humphreys states: “Tony Humphreys promotes the Refrigerator mother theory of the aetiology of autistic behaviours”. The incident of the dog that bit in the day exposed me to the chill draught of the fridge door opening.

Fully Present

On the positive side in the book under consideration, Humphreys does reiterate the Buddhist teaching that we get in so many self-help books these days. ‘’When we are insecure, we have difficulty living in the present: we tend to protect ourselves by either projecting into the future or living in the past. However, present-moment living is an essential aspect of healing ourselves. When we focus on the ‘now’, it means all our energies and resources are available to us and can be effectively applied to the activity in hand.” I am not quite sure how this fits in with: “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”