I’m a fascinated student and active applier of positive psychology. Its focus on understanding what helps us flourish is making important contributions to our collective well-being. Through it research and practice we’re learning that we can gain more deeply satisfying and make meaningful contributions to others by cultivating gratitude, forgiveness and self-compassion.
But there’s a downside to how the findings of positive psychology research sometimes gets interpreted. While this is not the intent of positive psychology, these interpretations can dovetail too comfortably with old cultural beliefs and values about “sucking it up” when the going gets tough, about going it alone, and about never whining, crying or even allowing a despairing thought.
The “tyranny of the positive”
Author Barbara Ehrenreich refers to her encounters with what she calls the “tyranny of the positive” after her breast cancer diagnosis.The emphasis on positivity that she encountered “…. rather than providing emotional sustenance …[exacts] a dreadful cost. That cost includes “ …the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer.”
Author, blogger, SEO professional and Quest pack mate Alicia Anderson writes of what happens when she takes “don’t be a whiner” messages to heart. Alicia’s course of treatment for psoriatic arthritis has not yet consistently relieved symptoms of swelling, pain and fatigue. Not speaking of her full truth to others results in her feeling isolated, alone and frustrated.*
Avoiding the recognition and expression of negative thoughts and feelings associated with past trauma can exacerbate a range of emotional, behavioral and physical problems (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2015). Our basic underlying cultural biases can mean that positive psychology is too often misrepresented in ways that can do harm. It’s time to recognize the importance of accepting and giving voice to our full truth.
The positive side of acknowledging negative feelings
Anger, guilt, anxiety and other negative emotions are helpful in surprising ways. They can give us more courage, regulate our behavior, keep us alert to our surroundings and recharge our creative energies, among many other benefits. (Kashdan & Biswas Diener, 2014, p. 93.)
Accepting and acting on negative feelings can be crucial to our health, our relationships and our careers.
Last summer my negative feelings, coupled with my positive activism, prompted me into action that most likely saved my life. Due to a bit of worry, I asked my family doctor to check the little lump in my armpit, the one that was probably just a cyst or an infection. It was a malignancy, the first noticeable sign of my breast cancer.
In interpersonal relationships, allowing myself to notice and express discomfort in interpersonal relationships helps me stand up for myself, maintain boundaries and communicate clearly. Suppressing these reactions results in them coming out in behavior that I’m not proud of and that certainly don’t help the situation!
Doug, a recent client, resigned his position when it was redefined in ways that didn’t align with his strengths and talents. Anxiety about his future and fear of making a mistake lead him to seek coaching. He wanted to get more clear about his purpose, his strengths and his goals rather than rushing directly into a job search. After five coaching sessions, he had made discoveries leading to some clear decisions. He enrolled in a certificate program that would allow him to make his desired career shift. He also decided to seek a job that would allow him to pursue his studies and contribute to his family’s income.
Positivity is important to flourishing
Acknowledging our full range of feelings, negative and positive , allows us to thrive. Positivity has beneficial impacts in the workplace and a range of physical and emotional health benefits. Hope, or our belief that we can positively influence our future outcomes increases motivation and our sense of efficacy. (Biswas-Diener, 2010).
Regularly expressing gratitude, noticing and recalling the things in our lives that evoke positive feelings, and the repeating of self-affirmations can improve health-related behaviors in people with chronic illnesses. Expressions of gratitude, seeking ways to help others,and living by our most deeply held values strengthens relationships and gives our lives meaning (Lyubomirsky, 200; Leider, 2015).
Freedom from “tyranny”
I’ve decided not to live under the tyranny of the positive, or of the negative. Much as I’d like to say that I’m always strong, optimistic and fearless, it would not be true. Sometimes I am that way, and that positivity can be a strength that sees me through challenging times. But negativity appears during those times as well. When I can let myself sit with my darker and more difficult experiences, when I can give voice them or write them down, I become more able move forward. Moving forward can mean a variety of things.
It sometimes means accepting what is. I cannot wish away my cancer, the side effects of treatment or it’s emotional, physical and financial toll. I can adapt, and I can appreciate the many gifts in my life that help me cope.
Other times, it means taking charge and doing what I can. Voicing my opposition to having yet another invasive and likely unneeded breast biopsy done after I’d completed chemotherapy lead my doctor to try aspirating the small mass that might be a cyst or might be yet another tumor. It indeed was a cyst. Speaking up and giving voice to my fear, anxiety and unwillingness lead to a much more manageable procedure, and immediate assurance that there was no immediate new health threat.
Moving forward can mean acknowledging the real threats that must be recognized and addressed. I do what I can to prevent bad outcomes and choose to focus my energies, thoughts and feelings on living my best possible life. This involves creative explorations of what matters most, making time for things I most want to do, and for the people who matter so much.
In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time
How do you attend to both the positive and the negative in your life?
* Alicia Anderson’s post, The Complaint Department, inspired the thoughts that led to this one. Thank you, Alicia for writing your truth.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2010)). Practicing positive psychology coaching. Hoboken, NJ: John H. Wiley & Sons
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R (2014). The upside of your dark side. New York, NY: Hudson Press.
Lieder, R.J. (2015). The power of purpose. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Lyubimirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness.New York, NY: Penguin Books
Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J.M., New York, NY: Guilford Press