You wake up and remember the horrible thing that has happened to you. You’ve lost your job, or a friend, or a dream you had. You go through some shake-off-the-negativity exercises. The tightness in your chest or throat persists. You clearly haven’t practiced your positive thinking enough, right? Or you should be on medication. Or both.
Why are we so averse to grief in our society? It is, after all, the only truly normal response to reality sometimes.
The rash of self-help positive-thinking happiness formulas everywhere (and maybe nowhere more than in the blogosphere) has me cranky today, and I’m going to come out and say it: Bright-siding has run amok with its name-it-and-claim-it, happiness-and-success seduction.
I know the value of searching for and finding a bright side. I do it every day, many times a day. I know the value of not dwelling on and feeding our negative thoughts—they can quickly drown us when we stay there. I know the value of shifting our focus to happier distractions. Positivity is great, yes, and our thoughts do influence our decisions and the direction we take.
But I also know the value of being present in this moment, which most often has joy and pain holding hands.
I always try to transition from one moment to the next on the joy or beauty part, because it keeps me moving in that direction, but the idea that we can command our level of joy simply by monitoring and controlling our thoughts is absurd. If you’re deeply sad, you’re deeply sad. If you’re angry, you’re angry. If it’s a horrible situation, it’s a horrible situation. It’s fine to try focus on something you can still be thankful for, absolutely. But positivity taken to the point of denying reality is destructive, and robs us of our humanity. There is much beyond our control, and positive thinking has recently become a tool by which victims get blamed for their plight (they weren’t optimistic enough), and yet another burden to put on those who find themselves ill, either physically, or in the throes of anxiety or depression, or just plain old-fashioned feeling defeated by it all.
One of the top five regrets of the dying as witnessed by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware and reported here in the Guardian is not having expressed true feelings. Cultural values of positivity-above-all are no help on that front.
Whitewashing horrid things is destructive, period. Repressing pain is a waste, and actually puts our health at risk. We need hope, yes, but also realism and emotional integrity, not forced happiness.