When I was in 6th grade, I decided I want to be a Buddhist. I was in love with the idea that the main premise of the tradition was that life is suffering. I suffered a lot when I was little and as a sensitive, lonely child, I loved that I found a religion that met me where I was.
As I grew up and got more into self-development, however, one thing was made abundantly clear; life was NOT suffering, that was just your perspective. And if you didn’t want to suffer, all you had to do was focus on the positive.
As an example, I recently read an article titled 10 Ways To Be More Successful.
The sixth way, according to the article was to, “replace automatic negative thoughts in your brain with positive thoughts.” It goes on to say, “Women spend so much time questioning if they’re good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, etc. As soon as you hear any inner critical voice judging you, replace it with the phrase, “I am enough.”
Voila easy peasy.
Replace negative thoughts with positive ones, focus on the positive, and not only will you not suffer, you also won’t feel inadequate.
Forget that the feelings of not enoughness is not just a mindset issue. Forget that replacing one thought with another doesn’t always do much if the issue is stemming from the unconscious. Forget that everything we think has an underlying message for us. Just think positive! You ARE enough!
It’s little wonder we are so drawn to positive thinking - it’s so enticing! It’s an illusion of control, a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable pains of life that Buddha preached thousands of years ago. With just a few focused thoughts, you can always be happy and change every loss into a win, how amazing!
And yet, what I have seen again and again is that forcing ourselves to be positive is counter productive to our resilience.
I heard a tragic story the other day about a father who was dying of cancer… and even though he had life insurance for many many years, he got it into his head that having life insurance meant he didn’t have faith. Your thoughts are your reality, he believed, and somehow by having life insurance it meant he had negative thinking and wouldn’t be able to heal himself. So months before he was going to die, knowing he was going to die, he canceled his life insurance policy, leaving his family in a huge amount of debt and despair.
While this may feel like an extreme example of the manifestation of believing that our thoughts are facts and that being positive is the only answer, maybe you can see in the story a little glimpse of the rigidity we all carry in denying the realness of what is here, because what is here feels hard to bear.
Ignoring the news is a more common way I see this fear of negativity manifest. For a long time, I put my head in the sand, ignoring what was going on around me because it was too much. Too uncomfortable. I preferred to live in my own bubble where I could control the level of positivity. That is, until what was happening in the news was directly affecting me. Only then I realized that it wasn’t the news that was too much, it’s that I didn’t want to sit with all the emotions that come with being an engaged moral citizen.
Forcing ourselves to be in a state of “positive vibes only” not only robs us of experiencing the magic of emotions that we all carry and is crucial to our awakening like grief, sadness, loss, anger, frustration, it also robs us the ability to be authentic with others about our pain which then keeps us from being fully supported by our community.
If we want to develop resilience and the capacity to be in the world as it is and not as we wish it to be, author Susan David reminds us, we’ve got to be able to get with, be with and develop a competence and comfort with all emotions including the difficult ones.
We’ve got to honor the suffering.
Because what happens when we tell ourselves that we just need to focus on the positive and everything will be ok… and then things aren’t ok?
We feel culpable in our demise. We blame ourselves for not being positive enough. We experience shame for our inadequacies. And then we stuff those feelings down too because we haven’t been taught how to use them to inform our lives.
We ultimately walk around feeling numb, feeling like we are not being true to ourselves, feeling unworthy.
When we speak of this on a collective scale, we can see how this obsession with “positivity” is leading to greater global percentages of depression and anxiety. We must move away from this narrative if we want to build a world that is more tolerant and sympathetic to pain and suffering.
So I implore you, instead of focusing on the positive, or “seeing the bright side,” see if you can practice honoring all emotions as they come up. Instead of trying to make someone feel better, see if you can sit with their pain. Instead of denying what is here, see if you can breathe into this moment, knowing that everything passes with attention and curiosity.
What I know you will find is greater peace, comfort and not-so-ironically, happiness. Just as the Buddha predicted.
To your worth,