One thing that makes me want to throw up is fake positivity. You’ve seen these people – no matter what you say they respond with something similar to “well let’s look on the bright side of things.” Ummm, no! Right now at this moment I will not look on the bright side of things. I will recognize this particular moment for what it is, crap.
Why are we so afraid of facing the hard parts of life? Do we honestly believe we can simply choose to see the bright side of things and miraculously all is well? It would be absolutely lovely if this was the case. But what I see when people do this is a mask, a fakeness, a deep sorrow that doesn’t get resolved and will surface again and again. Emotions are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply cues to pay attention. If you choose to ignore the negative emotion, immediately “switching” to a positive one, you are missing out on tremendous growth opportunities.
I am a huge proponent of acceptance in the moment. The ability to walk through a difficult time, see it for what it is, and accept that it’s truly happening is strength and will actually decrease the intensity of the emotions that are bubbling up. Pretending to be ok when you’re not will keep you stuck emotionally by reinforcing the idea that you should ignore these very important cues. On the other hand, once you recognize the emotion, you can then choose your reaction to it. One of the best ways to do this effectively is through breath control. Slow your breathing and focus on exhaling longer than you are inhaling. This will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, helping you to calm down.
There will be time later to look back at the situation and find the bright side. That definitely has an important place in the healing process but to deny the gravity of the situation is not helpful. Sometimes we simply need “negative validation.” We need to know that having negative thoughts around a situation is appropriate. The last thing we need in the moment is for someone to add to the shame we may already be feeling.
Steven Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, states that we often fail to take the time to really, deeply understand someone who is trying to share themselves with us. He goes on to say that “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” This could not be more important than when someone is going through a hard time. When you instruct someone to look on the bright side of things or tell them things could be worse, you are (hopefully inadvertently) telling them that they are wrong for feeling how they do. It is not an act of understanding, affirming, validating, nor appreciating.
Remember This One Thing
So, next time you are tempted to use the popular idea of positive thinking when someone you love is going through a hard time, don’t. I can say personally that in the midst of pain, it has never made me feel better for someone to suggest I should.
When someone is sharing their pain with you, they are needing a psychological life preserver. You can provide that by listening to understand, affirming their right to feel the way they do, validating the ‘suckiness’ of the situation, and showing love and appreciation for them right where they are right now. Then, one day in the future, you can both explore what the bright side of a dark situation may have been.