The Problem With Positive Thinking
Last updated: December 2021
People who rant endlessly about the power of positive thinking often get on my nerves. With certain types, it’s almost a religion. Anything can be overcome if you think positively. Change your mindset and your problems will magically disappear. Worse still, some of these overly optimistic types will read to you from "The Secret," the best-selling self-help tome filled with rudimentary schlock.
"Be positive!" people mean well
These people mean well. But when you’re that reductive, when everything gets simplified to a formula, the advice just isn’t really that helpful. This is particularly true with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, which can’t be managed via a simple alteration in viewpoint.
Had an intestinal resection? Look on the bright side they will say. You can miss work for 2 weeks and relax. Sure. That’s what I want. To be stuck in a hospital room in excruciating pain with a massive surgery scar running from my pelvis to my sternum. Sounds just like a getaway in Cancun!
Got very sick, can't eat, and needed your stomach pumped by NG tube. No problem, they tell you. This saves you from having to diet. Do these people hear themselves? Talk about subsisting in a bubble!
Positivity-at-all-costs mindset is a problem
Again, I understand they mean well. I also get that a lot of people just don’t know how to respond to a chronic illness that can be incredibly debilitating. All that being said, the endless fixation on positivity at all costs feels phony.
It trivializes your suffering. It also suggests there is some simple solution you’ve yet to try that will act as a panacea. No! This isn’t realistic. The truth is when you have IBD life isn’t all Care Bears and Hello Kitty.
Sometimes we need to think about the negative
Then, too, it’s not even clear that a positive mindset is always best. One man walks across the street with a positive mindset, falls down a manhole, and dies. Another is bitter and distrustful, and, as a result, dodges the manhole and survives. Given all that a self-help guru could easily write a book titled, "The Power Of Negative Thinking."
After all, negative thinking enables you to be a person who is more grounded and pragmatic.
We should prepare for the worst but hope for the best. Without the first part, the second is meaningless. Again, this applies to IBD. By accepting our reality as it is rather than as we want it to be, we’ll have the best shot of managing the curveballs our condition throws at us.
Positive thinking isn't always the reality
For instance, we shouldn't expect there to be a miracle drug. Or to think that if we go into surgery all our problems will vanish. Realism! Even if in remission now, it is important to remember that at some point our IBD may return. This will also help us keep on top of matters: taking our meds, staying fit, watching our diet, reducing stress, etc.
There is another danger to positivity-at-all-costs mentality. It doesn’t let us feel the anguish we need to experience to get beyond it. In other words, we sometimes need to feel hopeless, to cry, to scream, to gnash our teeth, and shake our fists at the heavens. It is okay to be negative sometimes... Particularly when you have a debilitating condition like Crohn's or UC.
Those who tell you otherwise are misleading you. Feel. Experience. Go through the pain. Or as Winston Churchill put it, "If you're going through hell, keep going.”
Our positivity needs to be authentic, not forced
True, it is better if we eventually dig ourselves out of hell so that we can embrace the light, but only if it happens on authentic terms. We shouldn't be positive because we feel obliged. It should be because we battled our demons and now wish to celebrate the hint of joy, the taste of freedom. It should be a positivity we earned.
In sum, positive thinking has its benefits. Certainly, all other things being equal, being positive is terrific. But it should be a realistic positivity, cautious optimism that allows us to feel our anguish and work through it towards genuine hopefulness. Without the opportunity to express these negative emotions, and experience a kind of catharsis, all the positivity in the world won’t help.
What are your thoughts on positive thinking? Do you agree with my perspective? Why or why not? Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments below.
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