Let me caveat this by saying some of my friends love positive thinking. It clearly helps them to stay optimistic, look on the bright side, count their blessings, and make the most of things. I wouldn’t dream of trying to take it away from them or argue with them about it. People come from different places, react against different things and find different ideas helpful. But for me – I hate it. Positive thinking and I have a painful history.
When I was young several of my role models were great believers in positive thinking. I admired their attitude and absorbed all of their ideas about how to best live life. I took copious notes during talks, about overcoming adversity, always finding the silver lining, looking for the best in people, never giving up, and always remaining positive no matter what.
I fervently believed these ideas and lived by them. This had a number of unforeseen outcomes. I was incapable of believing ill of anyone, and therefore incapable of protecting myself from the school bullies. I behaved in a painfully naive manner, always looking for the best in people and frequently being taken advantage of. Never giving up meant I was unable to walk away from anything, any project, any relationship. If I failed at something it simply showed I had not tried hard enough. If a relationship died it evidenced my lack of extraordinary effort.
Having to be positive all the time left me incapable of expressing anything ‘negative’ without guilt. To cry, feel overwhelmed or afraid was to be weak. I never considered that my ‘dark moods’ may have a kernel of insight to them, whereas my ‘sunny days’ may be more about self-delusion than reality. I ignored every uncomfortable feeling, all those instincts that say ‘this worries me’, ‘they seem scary’, ‘I don’t like this’. I hoped for the best, forgave, turned the other cheek. I didn’t know that sometimes you need to be shrewd, cautious, un-trusting, and self-protective.
I’ve come through things that made me reject the ideas of positive thinking. I’ve been in situations where my best efforts were not enough. I’ve loved and risked and dreamed and been broken when I lost everything. I’ve learned there are many things I cannot control, and that running from pain strips me of all feeling. I’ve learned that we call it a risk because you may lose. I’ve learned that that point in the movie, where you appeal to their better nature and they melt, they just cannot treat you that badly after all – that there are people who reach that point and merely laugh at your naiveté. The world can be a very unkind place to people with Pollyanna ideals. And people with Pollyanna ideals may ignore all evidence of pain or abuse for someone else because they are too busy looking on the bright side and believing the best of people. It’s been hard for me to come to terms with that. It’s hard when nice people don’t want to know what’s really happening.
In my teen years I gravitated towards the goth subculture, because there I found people who ignored the conventions and expressed pain. When they felt bound and trapped they wore chains. I could not escape but I could at least protest. I could reject the conventions that silenced me, and find other ways to have a voice, and to speak my own truths instead of the scripts given to me.
My personal philosophy is oriented more to the idea of trying to be authentic than to be positive. I gravitate more to the idea of telling myself the truth than trying to believe affirmations that deep down, I simply reject. I don’t like fighting myself like that, and I don’t like feeling that I’m building castles in the air, that while I’m hopeful I can believe all these wonderful things but there may or may not be any reality to them. So when I’m exhausted, frightened or depressed, all my foundations disappear. I like to hold onto things I can still half believe when I’m in a black place. I also crave the freedom to be honest about how I’m feeling.
I think most people who are unwell feel the pressure to be positive. Children dying of cancer who are still cheerful are held up to us as examples. This burns in me. It feels like being silenced. One more time when I have to pretend the bad things aren’t happening, that I’m not in pain, not afraid, not dying inside. I’m scared by how many times I hear after someone has killed themselves – we didn’t know anything was wrong. I’m scared and angry that people in pain feel they have to keep it secret. I’m tired of making a secret of suffering. I’m tired of being cheered up when what I want is connection, when I want are relationships that make it easy for me to be honest and hard for me to tell even sweet lies – instead of the opposite.
So for me, I’m always trying to hold onto my voice, to accept what I really feel, what I really think, or fear, or hope. I crave authenticity. I crave the strength to be honest. I want to speak the truth, even when the truth is horrific. I am a very positive person, I have a deep love of life and a dogged pursuit of hope. But I reach this almost by going in the opposite direction, by going down into black places, into bleakness, rage, despair, loss. I embrace these things rather than run from them. I want to be able to be real to the people around me. I want not to have to lie, not to wear a smiling mask over pain or emptiness. I want for people to be able to trust my smile and my tears. I want to be known. Somehow my journey brings me towards hope, joy, self compassion, and so many of the things I know those who love to think positive are also seeking. I just need to take a different road.