Basically it’s believing that you should always put a positive spin on all experiences, no matter how awful.
Positivity is obviously a good thing – and certainly better than negativity – so when does it become toxic?
I believe when it’s emotionally invalidating. When it encourages the bypassing of authentic feelings.
And even when it is just applied too soon.
You can’t ‘look on the bright side’ when you are engulfed in total darkness.
Think of it in terms of a physical Injury or even surgery .
During the acute phase the focus is on life saving procedures.
No kind of longer term healing or rehabilitation can begin until the life has first been saved.
Gradually strength can be built through a recovery program.
Following a psychologically traumatic or adverse experience, the nervous system, including the brain, goes into overdrive just trying to cope. While this is happening, effective cognitive processing is inhibited. Which means the person literally cannot think straight. They can not make good decisions or healthy choices because the whole nervous system is devoted to mere survival.
If someone you know is in this state – just be kind to them. Treat them with tenderness. Do not expect them to be themselves or to be able to think positively about anything just yet. In fact what might be regarded as negative thinking at this stage is all about looking out for potential threat and danger in an attempt to prevent further injury.
This acute phase – is about life or death.
If they are cared for, their feelings validated – no matter how extreme, and they are supported and looked after – their nervous system will re-adjust.
Then after this acute phase, they can gently and respectfully, be encouraged to focus more in the direction of the positive and towards what needs to be done in order to create a life worth living.
This is when positivity is actually a truly positive thing.
In fact there comes a point where continuing to focus on the trauma or the adverse event, or even the resulting feelings, actually becomes counter productive.
If this goes on for too long passed the acute phase, it can result in a habit of living miserably. Of experiencing a general dissatisfaction with all aspects of life. Where unhappiness and a lack of motivation to even try to improve anything, becomes the norm.
When we are unhappy for what ever reason, we can fall into the trap of constantly asking “why”?
Take my experience of grief for example. When I feel depressed, to keep asking myself why, does nothing to help me feel better. In fact it reinforces the bad feelings and in extreme cases be re-traumatising.
“Why do I feel so sad, lonely, unhappy?” – oh yes because after 33 years my husband and best friend is no longer here and I have to live every day with out him.
And I have to deal with the awful way he died .
I can come up with a million answers to the question why? And none of them are likely to help me feel better.
So why do we ask why?
Quite simply because the mind is built to try to make sense of the world and help us gain understanding. And indeed in the early days following a trauma or adverse experience we need to allow the mind to process events while we fully permit ourselves to experience all the accompanying feelings. The problem starts if the why goes on longer than is productive.
A lot of therapy is focussed on excavating the reasons – why.
This can provide some context and reasons, which lead to insight and understanding. But this in itself is not enough long term. Once the life saving acute phase is over, once a certain amount of healing has taken place, it is time to move on.
The why to be replaced with what….
This stage is could be thought of as a kind of psychological rehab or recovery.
And the emphasis shifts from understanding and processing to action.
What needs to be done?
What is within my control to influence?
What can I do to feel a bit better, no matter how small the step?
During the early acute phase – just take care of the person – once the nervous system begins to stabilise then move into the psychological rehab phase.
How long does this take? Quite simply, that depends! On the nature of the trauma and the number and types of unresolved traumas that came before that may be still require healing.
Asking why can be useful for a time – but it only gets you so far until it loops you round in an unfulfilling circle. The ideal time to start asking what – is just before that happens.
But it is never too late to shift from why to what.
What is most likely to help make me happy right now, as things are?