We’ve all been there. You’re sitting with a friend, telling them how you are struggling to keep your head above water. You are feeling worried, sad, upset, and hurt. Your friend turns to you and says, quite simply, “just be positive, it will all work out!” And poof! Suddenly all your problems float away and you feel SO MUCH better…right?
“Being positive” is a phrase – and frankly a way of life – that has become deeply engrained in our culture. There are plenty of books, gurus, and motivational speakers that will tell you positive thinking is the path to making all of your dreams come true. If you get rid of those pesky negative thoughts and emotions, you too can achieve success! After all, it’s your fault that your own attitude is holding you back.
Well, I’m here to tell you they are wrong.
Ultimately damaging, this concept of forcing false positive thinking communicates suppression and avoidance. It teaches you to essentially lie to yourself and stuff down all of those “bad” emotions, creating a space in which you blind yourself to reality. Those “bad” emotions hurt, and we want to feel good. Nevertheless, research has shown that when you suppress emotions, they only get stronger.
Sometimes life does suck. It can be uncomfortable, sad, messy, and ugly. Life is filled with many different experiences that provide us with a vast range of emotions. When you label those events (and emotions) as “good” vs. “bad” you undermine your personal experience and cut yourself off from fully feeling either. You may even view the “bad” emotions as threats, causing you to be on alert and forever stuck in a defensive position.
Sounds pretty exhausting.
The alternative? Mindfulness, acceptance, and distancing.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Psychologist Susan David maintains that we should instead “pay close, yet detached attention to our internal experiences. When harnessed, she asserts, the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, and personal narrative that makes up our inner self can become our best teachers. Our emotions can reveal what we value most, and we can then act on those values to evolve into our best selves — resilient, stable, curious, courageous, compassionate and empathetic” (2016).
Below, watch Susan David share her findings and beliefs on what she terms emotional agility.
It is nice to look on the sunny side of life, but you must also fully embrace ALL of life for what it is, courageously, genuinely & wholeheartedly.
Semnani, N. (2016). A Harvard psychologist explains why forcing positive thinking won’t make you happy. The Washington Post.