When staying positive can become a negative

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We live in a ‘think positive’ world, in which people are encouraged to hide or deny their vulnerability.

But this can come at a cost, as shown in research published this week by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support*. The research showed that this ‘think positive’ attitude among people with cancer, espcially those with a terminal diagnosis, was preventing honest conversations about end-of-life care.

More than a quarter of people surveyed said they found it hard to talk honestly about their feelings around cancer and a similar number said they felt guilty if they could not remain positive or portray themselves as a ‘fighter’. Health and social care professionals were generally reluctant to bring up the subject of end-of-life care with patients, the survey found.

The result of this was that many people with cancer were not having vital conversations until far too late and were dying in hospital against their wishes.

I believe this research has wider significance and shows the down side of an excessive focus on ‘thinking positive’ or being a ‘fighter’.  There is an important place for these qualities in life, but when taken too far it can become denial and a way of avoiding vulnerability.

When we adopt a think positive attitude too rigidly, we can easily slip into viewing ‘negative’ emotions such as vulnerability, fear, sadness and anger as somehow wrong or things to be battled against.

Miriam Greenspan talks about this in her book, Healing through the dark emotions. By ‘dark’ emotions she she doesn’t mean they are bad but rather that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark.

“In the throes of grief, fear, or despair, we generally believe that giving feelings like these too much space in our psyches is a sign of emotional weakness or breakdown,” says Greenspan.

She describes this attitude as ‘emotion phobia’ and says that while we can push these feelings away for much of the time, sooner or later we experience a major loss, shock or trauma and our habit of pushing away dififcult feelings no longer works.

In my work as a psychotherapist I often have clients who have got the message, usually from childhood, that their feelings (and particularly their ‘difficult’ feelings like sadness, vulnerability, fear or anger) are not okay.

These are the clients who want me to make such feelings ‘go away’. Instead I encourage them to try and name the feelings they are struggling with, to locate where in their bodies these feelings live, to see if they can allow these feelings to be present and to trust that there is a purpose in these feelings.

My experience is that there is always a reason for particular feelings in our life. If we can shift our perspective away from judging the feeling (and ourselves for having it) to being willing to experience it we can begin a different kind of ‘conversation’ with the feeling.

We can then begin to explore what this feeling is trying to draw our attention to in our life, or pehaps to  something in our distant past that needs to be given a place.

* https://www.macmillan.org.uk/aboutus/news/latest_news/fighting-talk-can-leave-cancer-patients-unable-to-talk-about-death-and-dying.aspx

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Heinz Kohut and why we still need empathy for ‘childish’ feelings

There’s a common idea that when we become adults we must be independent and ‘rational’. We must not behave ‘childishly’ by needing others too much or not being able to easily handle our feelings.

But how nice it would be, as adults, if we were able to receive the empathy that many children get!

For example, if a child is very anxious about something, such as making friends at school, his parents will probably try and comfort or reassure him.

They may empathise with his anxiety, perhaps telling him that they too sometimes felt anxious about school when they were small. Then they might give him some practical tips on making friends or handling his feelings.

As a result, the child feels understood and supported – more able to take on the challenge of school.

But we do not usually extend this kind of empathy and understanding to other adults in our lives, such as partners. If our partner is very anxious about something that we don’t understand we may judge them (openly or to ourselves) as being ‘childishi’ or ‘irrational’.

We may even go further, suggesting they ‘get a grip’ or ‘don’t make such a big deal about it’.

But just because we are adults does not mean we no longer need the empathy and support we got as children.

Pioneering psychotherapist Heinz Kohut was the first to argue strongly that the needs we have as children do not suddenly disappear when we become adults. He was challenging the view that well-adjusted adults should be independent, self-reliant and get along without others if they need to.

Kohut defined the needs that children have, and which we continue to have as adults:

  • the need to be mirrored: children need to be shown by adults that they are worthwhile and valued. This happens not through what adults say but throught subtle cues, such as facial expression, tone of voice and attention. When the child feels this positive attention he or she grows up feeling secure and loved.
  • the need to idealise: if the child experiences at least one parent as calm, confident and powerful then he or she has someone to turn to when the world feels overwhelming. Over time the child absorbs or ‘internalises’ this influence and so is able to soothe themselves when things are difficult.
  • the need to be like others: children need to know that they belong and are not too different from others or that they don’t fit in.

Kohut’s argument was that these needs continue throughout life and that, at various times, we need to feel support and empathy from those closest to us.

Therapist Michael Kahn says in his book Between Therapist and Client: “Kohut’s theory is a useful counterweight to the quite common belief that as mature adults we are supposed to do it all on our own, that only the weak need other people.”

While all adults continue to have these needs for mirroring and empathy, those whose needs were not adquately met in childhood will have more severe needs. These people are still looking, as adults, for these childish needs to be met. In therapy these “immature” feelings can be welcomed and explored, not criticised and judged.

In therapy the individual is able to get in touch with the unmet needs of the child, and the probable anger and sadness that flowed from that situation. By experiencing an empathic response from the therapist the adult can begin to release some of the difficult feelings and, over time, to become more able to comfort themselves and take responsibility for their lives.