Sometimes, when people hear that I’m a Positive Psychology Coach, they mistakenly assume that I’m only about positive thinking and denying “reality” (quotes added because reality is multidimensional, but more about that later…). Positive Psychology does recommend that we notice, cultivate and and savor the good in our lives, but it also acknowledges that life is full of loss, pain, illness, disappointment and setbacks.
While feeling and acknowledging these negative emotions is healthy, dwelling on the them takes us on a downward spiral, both physically and mentally.
And so, in my work as a Positive Psychology coach and teacher, I’m often surprised by how many people want to defend and hang on to negativity. But the truth is, I get it.
When I first started my own recovery journey, I was sick and tired of pretending that everything was fine and ignoring the elephant in the room. I was done with denial, and hungry to talk openly with anyone who’d listen about pain, trauma, abuse, emotional wounds and hardship. It was healing to shine the light of truth on my darkness, acknowledge the difficulties of my past, and express the emotions that were buried within me. I did this in therapy, 12-Step rooms, support circles and personal growth workshops, and I highly recommend all of these to anyone on a healing journey.
Eventually, though, I began to notice that my life was also full of grace, kindness, good people, beauty, blessings, accomplishment and love. The more I consciously register and pursue these things, the better I feel and the more able I am to move through the tough stuff. So why, when we know there’s another way, would we cling to and defend negative thinking, especially when it causes suffering? Reasons include:
–Familiarity/identity: “This is how I’ve always been and it feels ‘comfortable.'”
–Tribal loyalty: “My family/friends/co-workers are negative and I want to fit in.”
–Fear 1: “If I let down my guard and focus on the positive, I’ll get blindsided when something bad happens.”
–Guilt: “How can I be happy when there is so much suffering in the world?”
–Ego: “I’d rather be right than happy.”
–Fear 2: “If I dare to dream and hope, I’ll be disappointed (again).”
–Love/connection: “If I stay sad, I’m honoring the loved one (or thing) I lost.”
–Revenge: “As long as I’m unhappy, I’m punishing _________.”
–Fear 3: “If I start believing that a happier life is possible for me, I have to change.”
Now, this is the point where I have to mention that we humans are, in fact, born with a negativity bias. It’s the reason we’ve survived as a species, because the brain is wired to look out for danger. But in an age where the threat of physical danger has diminished, we’re more often on the lookout for what threatens our ego and self-identity. While this vigilance is meant to keep us “safe,” it limits our perspective when we exclude what’s good, right, helpful and working in our lives.
There is a time when a negative focus may serve us, and that’s in preparing for disaster. As Susan Jeffers advises in Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, it can be useful to follow a problem to its worst case scenario in our minds and imagine how we’ll deal with that outcome, telling ourselves “I’ll handle it.”
Then, it’s best to put our higher brain to use envisioning the outcomes we desire, and doing what we can to bring them about. In coaching, and elsewhere, we call this a Solutions Focus.
My favorite quote on this subject comes from American historian, author and activist Howard Zinn, who says that being optimistic is not foolish, but grounded in the reality that, while history is full of tragedy and cruelty, it’s also full of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. Zinn then speaks to the value of a positive focus:
“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Here’s to the optimists, and defenders of positivity.
Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life, Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.