In the past I’ve written that I am not a fan of positive thinking. (Though I am a fan of Zap Mama’s song “Vibrations” in which that is the prime message.) What I am coming to realize is that I am a fan of kindness, gratitude, and generosity. I suspect the origins of “staying positive” were more in line with these three qualities, but as I see it now, I think the whole concept has drifted into something that keeps people stuck and isolated.
In practice, “staying positive” seems to be about minimizing suffering and trying to pretend everything’s okay. “I’ve been crying every day, but I’m doing just fine!” More and more I think the culture of “being positive” is more about “looking like I am positive.” When we’re uncomfortable with someone else’s pain, we say “just be positive!” as a way to basically shut them up so that we don’t have to feel dragged down. This is understandable when I think of people who seem relentlessly pessimistic, cynical, or driven to demolish everyone else’s good time—and yet we could also say this about the activists and truth-speakers who have to break through denial to raise awareness.
In all, however, I’m not sure the injunction to “be positive” is very useful. I have come to dislike the way we moralize our feelings. This seems like another layer of that, in which certain experiences are okay to have and talk about while others are somehow corrupting one’s well-being or the mood of the group. Someone who is experiencing genuine suffering needs space to talk about it, to be heard and seen and not to be fixed. We need to allow ourselves this space as well. “I should be positive” is another way we criticize ourselves and try to keep parts of us stuffed in the Shame Closet.
Recently I have started encouraging clients to try being kind to themselves, rather than trying to stay positive. Kindness is the practice of treating one’s self and others humanely, with basic dignity and worthiness. Kindness is not about blunting the truth of one’s perceptions, minimizing pain and anger, or lying. It’s about behaving and speaking in a way that is considerate, warm, and compassionate.
For example, we might look at the self-talk of “I’m an idiot for forgetting that deadline.” This appears to be coming from a place of self-criticism, speaking as though one is globally flawed (an idiot) for this lapse. Someone who’s trying too hard to be positive might have that inner self-talk but attempt to cover it over with, “Everything’s fine.” That jump takes us directly into minimizing or self-deception and it doesn’t work. Feeling and witnessing our emotions is what helps them to move. Without that step, they tend to become stuck. If we try starting with kindness, we might say something like, “I missed this deadline, and I feel upset about it.”
If we can start with kindness toward ourselves and others, we have a stronger foundation from which we can move into an outlook that is affirming and likely what is truly meant by being positive: “I’ll be able to try again next year,” or “I did my best.” In summary, positive thinking is a problem when we try to bypass pain and discomfort. You are a whole and beautiful creature and all of your feelings have worth and value. If you need to genuinely talk about something distressing so you can process the feeling and move on to being a powerful, kick-ass human being, and someone shuts you down by saying “just be positive,” you tell them to come talk to me.