The Downside of Positivity

I was on the phone with a dear old friend, telling him about an upcoming move. “And it’s right across from the hospital, which is either terrifically convenient or phenomenally depressing!” I finished, describing my new apartment’s location with as much humor as I could manage.

“Well, that’s a good thing!” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “Which one? That it’s convenient…?” There was something in his tone that made me think I was missing something here.

“I was going to say, because it will inspire you to get better!” he told me.

Ouch.

 

With well-known illnesses — say, a cold — most people do not dole out droll little bits of wisdom concerning positive thinking and inspiration. No one believes that a cold will go away because I simply want it to. Instead, they recommend some OTC medications, rest, and perhaps a good hot whiskey with lemon. It’s only when an illness or condition is not particularly well-understood and is (usually) long term that the troubling statements about positive thinking start. Once you’ve experienced this for a while, you begin to notice some very troubling downsides to positivism.

  1. The continual stress on “being positive” can deny the validity of other feelings, like sadness, anger, or loss.
  2. Pushing positive thinking can lead someone to feel guilt over feeling any other emotions but positive ones.
  3. Positive thinking alone will not cure diseases. But statements like the one my friend made place the burden of regaining health solely on the patient. To get better, I just needed the proper mental state, or the right motivation.
  4. The “positive thinking will cure you” mindset leads to guilt on the part of the patient when positive thinking does not actually lead to health. Since guilt is a negative emotion, this can lead into a downward spiral … must think positive to get healthy – not getting healthy – not positive enough – my fault, guilt is a negative emotion, must instead think positively – still not well, more guilt because the first influx of guilt wasn’t apparently quashed well enough. Guilt on top of guilt.
  5. If a cure is not achieved, then to those pushing positive thinking, you just haven’t thought positively enough. This leads to patient-blaming by those who believe in positive thinking as a cure-all.
  6. A failure to improve could imply that you just need more motivation to truly be positive. This does not always mean creating positive and enjoyable experiences for a patient. My friend thought that living next to a hospital might, through mentally stressing me, inspire me to become get better. Emotionally and physically vulnerable patients can be put in harmful situations quite easily. To this school of thought, a more intense job, a long hike, or abusive emotional manipulation are all just things to motivate you to get better, and are therefore completely justified.
  7. I sometimes feel that positive thinking became a fad so quickly because Western society is losing the ability to deal with negative emotions. We become frustrated when someone is hurting and we can’t do anything about it, and instead of empathizing, we cheat. We tell someone to stay positive. We blame them for their emotions and condition. We run from the wide range of emotions someone who is chronically ill experiences. Embracing positive thinking as a cure for illness doesn’t just hurt the patient — it stifles emotional growth for those around them by giving them an easy out. Blame is usually easier than empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

Being positive is not completely a bad thing. Most of us, when given the choice between being depressed and being content, will wholeheartedly chose contentedness! It is also very possible to be both chronically ill and happy. I am by no means against positive feelings or saying that those with disabilities cannot be happy. No.

Rather I think it might be time to admit that positivism has a negative side too, and applying it as a panacea might very well wound those it is supposed to heal.

 

 

 

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One thought on “The Downside of Positivity

  1. I think “positive thinking” is really a misnomer for your friend’s school of thought. To me, that sounds more like “delusional thinking”. I imagine positive thinking to more like CBT. But at the moment, you’re right, it is a fad to be “positive” all the time which does have its downsides. Makes me pretty mad too!

    Like

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