“Take a look at the bright side,” we tell our loved ones when they’re feeling down. “See the cup half full, not half empty.” We help lift our friends by saying, “Cheer up! Don’t dwell in the negative. Be grateful. Think about all that you have.” If it seems our friends suffer from low self-esteem, we extol their virtues and exclaim, “People are attracted to positivity in others. Think positive thoughts and good things will happen to you.”
We draw upon a large base of common wisdom in order to combat the slings and arrows of existence. And some of the time, we do all right. When a person carries a cheerful spirit into a room, there is a terrific splendor that is contagious. We support one another. We lend one another positive strength when needed.
With all its potential for good, positive thinking can at times act as an oppressive tyrant, an enemy of happiness. After all, if the solution were so straightforward, if we could think our way into happiness, then our world wouldn’t be riddled with chronic misery. The mandate to be positive and cheerful in our culture is so pervasive and powerful, even people in psychotherapy feel a tremendous burden in simply communicating uncomfortable feelings to their therapists. Everyday popular treatment of emotions is hardly hearing someone out.
The darker social message of an individual who insists on surrounding himself or herself exclusively with positive energy sounds something like this: “Don’t whine. You sound like a baby. Get over it.” The culture of positivity often forgets the need for the yin and yang, the harmony of opposites. It can squash the voices of hurt, dissent, disagreement, and injustice. Even more oppressive: “You are weak. You’re taking on a victim mentality. Don’t be a victim.” The unwitting oppression marginalizes the voices of victims—victims of trauma, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
The fact is painful experiences can be uncomfortable to listen to. Nobody wants to upset their friends and family with feelings of discomfort. So, people become terrified of identifying as a victim. They deny trauma they have endured in order to spare “burdening” loved ones. They fear being considered weak because they are being asked to do something impossible—to get over it and move on. But in the case of trauma, the attempt to forget about it is the problem. Those who are identified as “victims” in our culture display exceptional bravery, refusing to act as though their hurt has disappeared, succumbing to the majority’s desire for them to get over it. One cannot simply “move on.” To live a fully human life, one must embrace the good and the bad in themselves and others.
It is true that some people dwell in cycles of negativity. But how do we know when we should or shouldn’t attempt to lift them from their sorrows? The key is learning how to listen. At times a person needs to endure a feeling, state, or mood in order to grow. What the person needs is compassion—a trusted other to listen while he or she endures his or her difficulties. Attempts to redirect the other toward positivity may be well intended, but may also lack compassion. Advocating a shift into a positive perspective may be received by the other as dismissive, even uncaring, depending on whether the listener is truly attuned to his or her friend’s needs. After all, how can you truly listen to someone if you’ve already decided what he or she should feel and how he or she should think?
Having compassion means feeling with someone—finding one’s way across the barrier of alienation. Having a need to redirect a friend’s emotions may indicate a difficulty or unwillingness to join him or her in a troubled state. Some may fear being “pulled down” by another’s troubles. Underneath the demand for oneself and others to stay positive is a terror about what lay on the other side of life, the darker side. Under the driven, fiery force of positive thinking lay immense anxiety. Ultimately, that fear inhibits a more fruitful joy—that of authentic connection, an enduring togetherness in the wholeness of life.
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