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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This being human is a guest house

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A  joy, a depression, a meanness, 

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows…

The poetry fragment above is by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who was a Sufi (Islamic mystic).

What I like about it is the message that all our feelings have a place, not just the ‘positive’ ones like joy or contentment.

Rumi compares the spectrum of our emotions to visitors at a guest house. We never know for sure which feeling will be the next to visit.

In the poem Rumi goes on to urge the reader to treat each ‘guest’ honourably, i.e. to welcome then in and not turn them away. In the same way, can we make a place for our anger, our sadness, our shame?

By making a place for our less comfortable feelings we also free up space for the more pleasant feelings. Often we try and escape uncomfortable feelings by denial, distraction or covering them over with drugs, alcohol, sex or TV.

But this doesn’t really get rid of those feelings, it just pushes them underground, into the unconscious where they continue to have power in less direct ways.

However, it can very difficult to allow the less pleasant feelings simply to ‘be’, without trying to change them or escape them. We live in a quick-fix culture where we are encouraged to immediately try and eradicate pain or discomfort – take a pill, think positive, count your blessings and cheer up.

There is often nothing wrong, of course, with taking medicine, thinking positive or counting our blessings. But when they become a habitual way of trying to deny deeper feelings our emotional ecosystem can become unbalanced. Paradoxically, suppressing ‘negative’ feelings can also make it harder for us to feel joy, excitement and enthusiasm.

One way of handling these feelings is neither to suppress them nor to necessarily express them, but simply to try and feel them without judgment. We may be able to come into a different kind of relationship with these feelings, in which we are not running scared but simply acknowledging to ourselves what we are feeling without getting into a battle with the emotion.

After all, we don’t always know why we are feeling the way we are and what role such a feeling might have in our life at that time.

As Rumi concludes his poem,

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent as a guide

from beyond.