How to Combat the Tyranny of Positive Thinking
Telling people to think positively has become an epidemic and, from what I can see, it is hurting people. I understand the good intentions behind it, because we hate to see the people we love and care for in pain. The problem with the positive thinking trend is that it's unnatural! I don't believe in the concept of "negative emotions." I view our emotions as messengers; they let us know what matters. We feel angry when our boundaries have been violated. We feel sad when we feel we've lost something we care about. We feel fear when we believe we are in danger. And so on. Why should a person project positivity when they are feeling anger, sadness, fear?
People need the space to be able to feel their feelings without being told to "fake it" so that others can feel less uncomfortable. Thinking positively, by itself, doesn't solve problems. But imploring someone who is going through stressful and/or overwhelming times to think positively can actually create more problems for that person. You are asking them to deny their own reality, and if they are unable to do so, they then feel that something is wrong with them. "Why can't I move on? Why can't I focus on the positive?" It stresses them out even more. It compounds the tough time they are already experiencing, because now they get the privilege of starting to believe that it's their own fault. I recently came across this video in which psychologist, Dr. Susan David, discusses this very topic:
You can see the entire TED talk here. It is worth the watch. Seriously!
So, how can we support a loved one who is struggling? What can I do if I'm the one struggling?
For the person fighting their way through tough, stressful, overwhelming times. Allowing yourself to feel the emotions that naturally arise from such circumstances, treating yourself with compassion and understanding as you try to make your way through, and reaching out for support (rather than isolating and suffering in silence) are the best things to do.
For the person on the outside, witnessing another person's struggle and suffering. Practicing empathy, offering support, and being there for that person, are the best things you can do. Try to recall a time in your life when you felt this way, and consider what did or could've helped you then. Do those things. I'm almost positive that being told to "buck up" and "think positive" didn't help. I'm almost positive that hearing phrases that started with "well, at least..." or "____ has it so much worse" didn't help. Be kind, be open, be accepting. And only offer advice when you're asked.
Now, to be clear, I am not advocating that people wallow in self-pity indefinitely. That's healthy either. Although, I am certainly a proponent of time-limited wallowing! But allowing ourselves the space to feel our feelings so that they may pass (as all feelings do), while being present and nonjudgmental, is the best thing we can do for ourselves when we're struggling. Embrace yourself in all of your complex glory!
One of my favorite books about accepting your emotions as they are and improving your outlook on life: