One of the most liberating things I've learned is that being excessively positive can be as destructive as being negative.
"WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING? WHAT POSSIBLE DRAWBACKS COULD THERE BE TO ALWAYS HAVING A POSITIVE ATTITUDE?"
Of course, we've all heard of the benefits of positive thinking and how visualizing the outcome we want is often the first step to making good things happen, right?
What if an overly positive attitude prevents us from fully accepting the negative experiences of others? When another person's negative experiences are not accepted, what affect does this have on them?
I remember the exact day I noticed the change in myself.
I was sitting in a circle with around eighty people, all sweaty from a "hippy dance thing" I had been a part of for many years. After dance, we formed a big circle, mostly sitting. It was time for "shareback" where anyone who wanted would tell something about their dance experience that day. I had an angry reaction whenever a person shared something negative, like they didn't like a certain song or person or they had some tragedy in their life they are dealing with. I would think to myself, "That such and such person is poluting my mind-space - OUR mindspace - with their negativity! That's so selfish and inconsiderate of them to use this public gathering to air their dirty laundry!"
Then, one day someone shared about how their dog had died and it had tainted their whole dance. I had that feeling in my chest and throat of extreme sadness and I cried. I also felt a sort of bittersweet joy. I felt honored that this person had the humility, courage, and trust to share such deep sorrow. It prompted the beginning of a new, deep exploration of the parts of me I kept hidden from myself and others. A new level of authenticity I didn't realize was missing.
None of us is without inner darkness. The world is not all light and positivity. Buddhism teaches that one of the main paths to spiritual growth and, ultimately awakening or enlightenment, is the acceptance of all things as they are in this moment, positive and negative. This means bowing to all that is, cultivating equanimity and the wisdom of acknowledging that, “it is the way it is”. As opposed to pushing reality away, rejecting it, and wanting things to be different than they are.
It is easy to accept pleasant people and situations, but practicing acceptance with regards to people and circumstance that we find difficult or challenging is a true path to spiritual growth and transcending the ego.
What if the darkness you have been so careful to hide from yourself shows through your "positivity mask" and it the incongruency impacts the trust of the people you interact with?
"MUMBO JUMBO! IS THERE A PRACTICAL SIDE?"
There sure is!
When someone close to us is in pain, our first instinct is to comfort them. It's part of being human. When we see a child crying, we want to hold them, wipe away their tears, and tell them it is OK. When a friend shares about a recent disappointing event, we want to point out the silver lining, strive to cheer them up, or distract them. When thinking about changing another person's mood or perspective, I tend to ask myself, "Is my interference really helpful here? Who am I really serving?"
When we take on changing another's emotional state or thought process as our job, we set ourselves up for frustration and will likely find ourselves pushing or pulling at the other person energetically and verbally.
Part of that "push/pull" is that the person we are trying to "happy up" might be receiving the message that their feelings are not cool and should be ignored, gotten over, or hidden. An old saying comes to mind. It goes something like, "When we defend or save someone, we deprive them of the opportunity to practice saving themselves."
"SO WE JUST ROBOTICALLY IGNORE PEOPLES' PAIN?"
Not necessarily. There we are really feeling for another person and wanting to help them. What do we do?
Empathy is usually the most powerful thing you can offer. Simple empathic contact or guesses like: "Are you feeling pretty worried?" "That sounds scary." "I'm guessing it's hard to feel so responsible about that happening?" "Do you wish you could just trust him?" "Do you wish you could know for sure that you are safe?"
Empathic presence doesn't make the fear or pain go away. It simply provides someone the warmth of companionship in a difficult place. It shows acceptance for the state they are in, rather than giving the message that those are ugly emotions that must be hidden or gotten over as fast as possible. It also gives the person the benefit of the doubt that they can pull themselves out of their own hole.
"BIG DEAL. WHAT HARM CAN IT DO TO HELP A PERSON BE IN A BETTER MOOD?"
Imagine a child's brain. We know the younger a person is, the more impressionable they are. Children require much less repetition than adults do to learn things. If a child is hurt and you consistently offer reward or punishment instead of empathy, they are being given the message that feelings of discomfort, pain, fear, and anger are unacceptable emotions to have and must be hidden or "gotten over" as soon as possible. What do you think children do with those emotions? Do you think the tasty snack, toy, trip to Disneyland, stern tone, or smack on the ass is going to turn them into Zen monks who understand and accept these negative emotions? No. It's going to turn them into people who grow up afraid to look inside themselves; ignorant of how to express themselves honestly to themselves and others; addicted to positivity and comfort, tasty snacks, toys, trips to Disneyland, and maybe smacks on the ass. If you want child to grow up with a sense of independence and being able to solve their own problems, then you'd think you want to take every opportunity you can to support them in the idea that they are responsible for their own feelings, right?
"HOW DOES THAT LOOK?"
Kid: "Mom I'm bored."
Mom: "I hear ya. You are bored." <-- that's empathy.
It's that simple. You let go of the idea that you are responsible for making your child happy. You are responsible for feeding and protecting them. That's it. When you go further than that, you are flirting with either creating dependency, unnecessary battles, and a home ruled by the kids.
"BUT WHAT IF THEY REALLY DO NEED REASSURANCE?"
I'm not saying never help people. The message here is to be more thoughtful about how positively intended actions can foster dependency and emotional retardation. Recognize which needs of yours that YOU are getting met by interfering. Is it a need to be seen and heard? Is it a need for nurturing? Is it a need to matter? Respect? Meaning?
Yes, the person in distress might actually need reassurance or advice. But if you ask people if they would just like to be heard, you might be surprised how often they say yes. How often have you JUST LISTENED to your spouse or children with no judgement, evaluation, reassurance, or advice? In times when I'm burning up to offer a fix, I first offer empathy and then ask if they would like some reassurance or advice.
The next time you offer reassurance to someone, try asking for feedback.
You could ask, "Was it helpful to hear that?" If it wasn't helpful you can ask, "What would be helpful?" If they don't know what would be helpful, simply offer empathy, to yourself first and then to the other person.