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The Downside of Positive Thinking

I can’t believe I am actually writing a blog with this title. From the time I was an adolescent, I have believed wholeheartedly in the power of positive thinking after my Dad began sharing tapes and pamphlets from Norman Vincent Peale and others. I still do actually, despite what I am going to share in this post. But I have uncovered a downside that was important for me to distinguish. Maybe it will resonate with you in some way as well.

In a workshop a few weeks ago, the facilitator asked participants to rank order several lifestyle issues according to how well we were doing with each, and right from the get-go I struggled. My reasoning was that while a few of these were not optimal, most of the rest were actually quite good, so putting any of them lower on the scale was difficult for me. I wanted to rank each one on a scale of 1-10 instead. Another woman in the group had a similar struggle and challenged the facilitator about the exercise.

What he said to her hit me like a ton of bricks: “Positive thinkers always have a difficult time being honest with themselves because they want to put an upbeat spin on everything.” Wow! I realized in that moment that I have been doing this for a really long time. Mostly I do feel pretty good about life, but in those times when I don’t, I sometimes have difficulty expressing my negative feelings because my quest for full-time “happy, happy, joy, joy” causes me to suppress anything that doesn’t fit that sunny picture.

Interactions with a few people over the following week, lead me to even more aha moments on this topic. I have always been quite emotional, and am very quick to cry for a variety of reasons. However, lately, I feel as if I cry even more often, typically when I realize a “truth” that I hadn’t seen before. I get touched very easily, and my emotion floods to the surface. While I know that this tendency in me sometimes makes others uncomfortable, mostly, I don’t mind showing my emotion.

A friend recently asked, “Why do you cry all the time? What is that about?” His intentions in asking were pure, and meant to help me examine anything I was making myself wrong about in that particular scenario, but the question was confronting to me, and immediately brought up the very thing he was trying to help me get to the bottom of – I made myself wrong that I cried so much and saw it as something I needed to “fix.” Yikes! That didn’t feel good. “One more feeling I have to suppress about me,” I thought at the time.

Just a few hours later, I was talking with a new friend who shared that lately she was crying all the time. Go on, I thought, you have my attention. She said in the past she had stuffed all of her “negative” emotions from anger, to fear and sadness. As she described it, those stuffed emotions then turned in on themselves and multiplied (though she said it much more clearly and eloquently than that). She went on to share some examples of how recently, she has been much better at expressing all of her emotions freely. Hmmmmmm.

Over the next few days, I became conscious of doing the same. I still sometimes qualified statements with something like, “this may seem mean, but. . .” or “I am a little apprehensive to share this, however. . .” I realized that for me, sharing what I truly felt or asking a question I would previously have been afraid to ask was crucial. The reaction or response of the other person wasn’t that important, but my willingness to be open about my feelings and needs was new and freeing. It gave me a sense of authenticity, and permission to get that my feelings – all of them – are valid and important, and don’t have to be whitewashed or shame-inducing.

I was reading a book called Radical Remission, by Kelly Turner, Ph.D. about nine key factors that make a difference in self-healing, particularly around cancer. This sentence hit home, and let me know I was onto something with my new-found full self-expression: “Cancer is the end result of alexithymia – or not expressing feelings or emotions. Most cancer patients, before suffering from cancer, are suffering from alexithymia . . . (which) causes blood pressure to go down and core body temperature to lower . . . and this destroys the functioning of the mitochondria . . . whose main function in the cell is to create energy using oxygen and help the cell die when it is supposed to – neither of which cancer cells do.” (p. 140-141)

Positive people can easily talk themselves out of their feelings by turning them upside down from so called “negative” into neutral. We can choose to see things differently, which can often be a blessing, but can apparently also cause some problems for our own health. I am always thankful that I can choose to see something from a more positive angle, but it is important to also feel ok about expressing the feelings I had from whatever the initial trigger was.

It is healthy for us to feel our feelings, and even to express them in the most loving way we can. Fear, regret, anger, frustration, annoyance and other forms of upset aren’t “bad;” in fact, they are perfectly normal. How we process them on either end of the spectrum can cause problems. If we explode in anger and yell at someone else, that has consequences for the other person, and probably also for us. If we deny, suppress or make our feelings wrong, I am realizing the serious impact that can have on our own health and well-being as well.

I was with a friend recently, and I felt my annoyance begin to build about something in our relationship that was bothering me. At first, I followed the familiar pattern of ignoring the emotion, then actively suppressing it, then trying to talk myself out of it or transform it into something else. Finally, I told him that I needed to share something with him, and we ended up having an incredibly open and honest talk that honored both of our feelings and allowed us to take our relationship to a deeper level.

He didn’t “cause” my feelings, I did, but it was powerful for me to share what was coming up for me. Because I wasn’t blaming him or shaming him, but was talking about what I was feeling, he didn’t feel the need to be defensive. That allowed us to move toward understanding the situation better, and having a real give and take that wasn’t fraught with the common pitfalls of the blowup that can come from suppressing emotions for a period of time and allowing the pressure to build to the explosion point.

I will always be a glass half full kind of person, but I see the value in expressing my feelings in order to work through them with someone else. I believe relationship is the key to growth, and real relationship isn’t possible without vulnerability and intimacy, both of which are created from sharing our true feelings.

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