I’m tired of people telling me to be positive. It feels too much like having random guys stopping me on the street and telling me to smile.
Of course, positive thinking is useful. It helps us focus on the good things we have, which makes us happier. It ensures that we keep trying instead of giving up too soon, which helps us succeed. It helps us stay healthier and heal better when we get ill.
All of that is great. What worries me is that positive thinking often becomes an excuse to avoid dealing with suffering.
Think about some of the inspirational quotes online for instance:
Replace every negative thought with a positive one
No negative thoughts allowed
This approach turns positive thinking into a way of hiding from the dark side of the human condition. Instead of noticing what we are actually feeling in the moment, the shock and pain of a loss or the fear of a medical diagnosis, we give ourselves pep talks: I am a fighter; I am going to beat this thing; life goes on, everything happens for a reason. Instead of recognizing our suffering and empathizing with others who are in pain, we tell them and ourselves to look at the bright side and to move on. Many of my students have internalized this message. Again and again, they tell me about a very painful event and then, before I have a chance to respond, they apologize for being so negative. Quickly, they explain that they know they need to get themselves together and think positively.
We are acting like those guys telling me (and other women) to smile. The mask has slipped and something sad is visible. Let’s cover it up with a smile!
Why do we do this?
We are uncomfortable dealing with suffering, both our own and that of others. We don’t like being in pain and we don’t like seeing other people in pain. Positive thinking becomes a way of avoiding what hurts. We figure that it will help us reach a state where we aren’t troubled by negative emotions and where we are happy no matter what happens. And we try to get to that state quickly by pretending that the negative feelings aren’t there. But the shortcut doesn’t work. As the Dalai Lama points out, this sort of denial is just like “closing a wound that is still infected” instead of letting it heal.
Ignoring painful things doesn’t make them go away. It just lets them fester.
So how do we get to a positive state of mind in a more honest way? As the Dalai Lama emphasizes over and over again, this is a lifelong project which involves much deliberate practice and repeated failure.
How do we begin this lifelong project? The first step is to practice mindfulness and to notice what we are actually feeling and then sit with those feelings, experiencing and noticing them rather than pasting positive thoughts over them.
Let’s bring the pain out into the light. The next time somebody is hurting and says she knows she should move on, tell her that it is OK to be sad and frightened for a while and pass the tissues.
The Dalai Lama quote is from his book Ethics for the new millennium, chapter 6.
Originally published at medium.com