Many of my clients, whether they’re living with a chronic illness or not, say to me at some point, “I just need to be positive” or “I just need to keep a positive attitude.” This isn't surprising since positive thinking shows up in the workplace, the military, and nearly every corner of our lives The Mayo Clinic touts it as a strategy for reducing stress and improving health.
My reply to my clients is that positive thinking is for suckers. And to the Mayo Clinic, I’d ask “what about removing the sources of stress? Doesn’t that seem way more efficient?”
Sure, it’s probably better to look on the bright side than to be a negative nancy but those aren’t the only two options, even if popular opinion might say otherwise. There’s not a lot of room in our society for negative feelings around hard stuff like death, illness, and other forms of loss. And our societal discomfort with negativity causes real harm, particularly for people with anxiety, depression, or chronic illness because they rarely feel supported in feeling all the feels. More on that here.
Thinking positively is just not a good strategy for addressing your life’s biggest challenges and it can actually make your physical and mental health worse in two big ways:
It’s an energy suck. To say that you need to think positively assumes that your feelings or experience are bad. So, to think positively, you’re expending energy thinking about how negative an experience is and then you’re spending more energy to engineer some alternate, more positive, and potentially false reality for yourself.
If you’re telling yourself that your pain or suffering isn’t that bad when it’s actually really bad, you’re allowing whatever you’re experiencing to go untreated and worsen. If you’re not acknowledging your pain, you’re also not asking for the support you need to resolve the situation. And as I wrote in a post called “Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Pain,” the “I’ll just suck it up approach” doesn’t just hurt you but the people around you as well.
Here’s the thing, negative feelings are 100% normal and worth being acknowledged. Also, not everything is about feelings. That’s an important tenet of the ontological coaching I practice and part of the reason I love it so much.
When I’m working with a client, I’m not concerned with how they’re feeling. I’m helping them first to just see what they’re telling themselves about a particular situation. The story could be positive, negative, or otherwise. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not that story is helping them get where they want to go. Often it’s not, and that’s why they feel stuck, worried, helpless, etc. If the client is willing to let go of the false, unhelpful story, it creates space for them to create a new one that is motivating, inspiring, and more true to who they really are. It’s pretty much the best!
So, the next time you have a negative emotion, be compassionate with yourself and know that it’s okay and totally normal. And if you hear yourself say, “I just need to think positively about this,” take a closer look at what “this” really is and what needs to be done about it. That might support you in moving forward.