The quote above sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But what about the stuff in the shadows? There’s some real shit going on in there. Personally, I think it might be worth it to check it out.
I remember years ago, when I worked for a large telecommunications company, we attended a sales training that introduced many principles that were new to us. The one that stuck the most was, “Choose Your Attitude,” only, it stuck for the wrong reasons. From that day forward, everyone said it with a healthy dose of sarcasm and a fake, plastic smile plastered across their face. It became the running joke that allowed us to give each other a nod that all it really meant in our real lives was that we would choose to be in denial, and pretend that things were ok, even when they weren’t. Rather than empowering us, this message left us feeling invisible and alienated. It would seem that although choosing your attitude sounds like it would keep spirits high, it achieved quite the opposite and taught us that our feelings didn’t matter, our feedback was unwelcome, and it was best to simply suck it up. Talk about an attempt at positive thinking gone awry.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s certainly merit in seeing the blessings in the chaos, or connecting with a sense of gratitude. Neuroscience is showing us that we have the power to rewire our brains to think differently, and that’s a very promising and wonderful thing. However, the “just think positively” approach misses a few steps – it’s a little more complex than that. It’s particularly unhelpful to use positive thinking as a bandaid to avoid looking at your wounds, so that you end up suppressing your true feelings while you wear a fake plastic smile, like my old co-workers and me.
Positive thinking, when practiced in a vacuum, does nothing more than suppress real emotion, and prevent us from feeling our true feelings, giving each other empathy, and when appropriate, finding solutions that make our lives better.
I believe in taking a closer look and being honest about your feelings. Despite my belief, I too fall into the habit of positivity-washing my experience when I’m telling others about something crappy that I’m going through. It’s as though I feel I’d better tell them that I’m looking at it in a positive way so that they don’t feel bad on my behalf, or worse yet, feel pressured to make me feel better. It’s natural to collect social habits over your lifetime that are intended to serve the social group. Upon closer examination, they really fail us as individuals and as a society. When we positivity-wash our problems, we forget how to empathize.
Monica Lewinsky has a brilliant TED talk about opportunities for empathy and how they bring us closer. By choosing to simply think positively, we’re erasing the opportunity to connect with others on a closer level – one that is ultimately very fulfilling for human beings. In a time when a sense of community is hard to come by and true connection with other actual people can sometimes feel like a rare thing, I believe that it’s important to acknowledge when things are shitty. Now, I’m not advocating just sitting in the junk and not doing anything about it – oh no. This is simply a reminder that there’s a vast field of possibility between just complaining about our circumstances and choosing to think positively about it. In truth, this field is where the magic happens. It’s more comfortable to deny that we’re feeling sad or angry about something and insist that we can see the positive side. What’s more challenging – and way more fulfilling, I would offer – is being honest with ourselves and trusted friends about our struggles, feeling and acknowledging our emotions, allowing ourselves to be seen when we’re standing in a rough place, and developing the capacity to be present with others when they’re going through a hard time. The magic then occurs organically. When we feel our feelings, acknowledge and perhaps share them, they loosen their grip on us – the fog lifts. When the fog lifts, we feel naturally more hopeful about our prospects, and we can start to explore relevant solutions. This process cannot be avoided by thinking positively (aka living in denial).
When we repeat a positive thought to ourselves before we’re ready, we’re really just lying to ourselves. It’s totally inauthentic, and inauthenticity affects our self-esteem. We’re denying our humanity, shutting ourselves off from our wholeness, severing our ties to the richness of life.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that we we would look for a bandaid instead of really looking at and working through our wounds. I mean, it hurts, right? Who wants that?
People who want to grow, that’s who. Sheltering ourselves from the truth, and therefore never doing the internal work that can help us to integrate our difficult chapters, keeps us stuck, right where we are. It’s totally possible to emerge with a positive outlook, but just deciding to do it? Doesn’t work. Not really.
Sometimes things suck. Please don’t think positively about it. Feel what you feel. Give yourself space. Embrace vulnerability with people you trust (or in your journal), and enjoy the natural sun after the storm.
A great first step is to carve out a little time for yourself to just be with your breath and check in to see how you’re doing. Breathing Room is the perfect way to do that. It’s a free, 21-day guided meditation experience where you receive a 5-minute recording every day to help you reconnect to yourself. All you need to do is press play. Click here for more information and to sign up.