Can’t find the sunshine? Be the sunshine!
Positive mind! Positive vibes! Positive life!
Say no to your negative thoughts.
This is just a sampling of the memes I encountered when scrolling through my social media the other day. The message is pervasive. If you think positive, positive things will happen to you. If you think negative, negative things will happen to you. It’s that simple. Now, just do it!
But it’s not that simple, is it? Sure, it may feel good to say, “Think positive!” “Be the sunshine!” And some days it is that simple. Some days, we do feel positive and it seems that the whole world is at our fingertips. But other days…..there are ups and there are downs. That is the reality of life.
The cult of positivity is everywhere. From decorative pillows that say, Thankful, Grateful, Blessed to social media memes and yoga mantras, we are surrounded by encouragements to live our best lives, manifest abundance, and trust the universe.
I am not saying that positivity is bad. I consider myself an optimistic person. I believe that people are basically good and like to think good things are on the horizon. Hard things have happened in my life but, for the most part, I’ve been happy. I am grateful.
Beliving that good things will come to us if we just think positive does give us a sense of control over our lives. But it doesn’t acknowledge the very real randomness we live with every day. In reality, there are many life circumstances we can’t positive our way out of.
Where I think an over-emphasis on positivity goes wrong is in its failure to acknowledge the full range of the human experience. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” No one’s life is going to be 100% positive. The world is both beautiful and terrible. Bad things always happen. That is the nature of life. If we love, we experience loss. If we take risks, we will (sometimes) fail. Other people will make decisions that hurt us or cause us pain. Illness, natural disasters, come out of nowhere. As the saying goes, no one gets out of this life alive. Living inherently involves risk.
So, when we diminish the experience of so-called negative emotions, we diminish the experience of life. As Rumi put it so wisely,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
I believe that we learn from the difficult experiences, as well as the positive ones. I also believe that when we hold space for the negative emotions, we have a greater capacity to experience the positive emotions when they – authentically – arise.
According to Dr. Susan David, toxic positivity is the inability to allow ourselves or others to experience a full range of emotions, including the uncomfortable ones, in favor of positive emotions.
You’ve received a difficult medical diagnosis? Good vibes only!
Your child is being bullied at school? Just think positive!
Your mother just died suddenly of a stroke? At least she went quickly!
Your spouse has asked for a divorce? Let go of the negative!
Each of these statements allows the person saying them to feel that they are being empathetic while really putting up a barrier to authentic connection and emotion. I’ve recently heard phrases like these described as thought-terminating clichés. Statements like these tend to put an end to the conversation. They don’t invite further exploration. They don’t acknowledge the depth of emotion or full range of the human experience.
When we are met with the suffering of others, focusing only on the positive:
- invalidates their pain,
- comes from a place of discomfort,
- is a way to distance, and
- causes disconnection.
Instead, some helpful ways to respond might be simply saying:
- I’m sorry.
- This sucks.
- How are you feeling?
- Let me come give you a foot rub.
- I’m bringing a casserole.
Sometimes the opposite of being positive isn’t being negative – it is simply honoring the truth. The truth isn’t always pretty…. and sometimes it can be downright uncomfortable, but it is not our place to define someone else’s truth for them. If we find ourselves telling someone else what they should feel in order to make ourselves more comfortable, that’s when we may be straying into dangerous territory.
The cult of positivity is so strong that it is difficult to disconnect from it completely. I know I’ve hurt others by diminishing their experience. I know I’ve started one too many sentences with ‘At least.’ I’m trying to do better, to be more aware.
It is also possible to inflict thought-terminating clichés on ourselves and try to talk ourselves out of our own emotions. It’s really not that bad. Other people have it way worse. I should be grateful. It’s okay, at times, to feel sad or mad or afraid. That’s what it means to be human. As Rumi encourages:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
We only have one chance (as far as we know) at being human. I don’t know about you, but I want to experience all of it. I want to greet every arrival to my guest house, welcome them in, learn from them, and release them when the time is right, having become more human for the experience. Instead of the thought-terminating clichés that are so pervasive, what if we embraced:
All vibes welcome here!
Say yes to all your thoughts!
Human mind! Human vibes! Human life!
We are here in this this beautiful, terrible world. Let’s experience all of it!