Friday, October 16, 2009

The dark side of positive thinking

M. at The Maybe Baby -- a cancer survivor as well as an IFer & loss mother to twin girls -- had a brilliant post earlier this week about "awareness" -- of cancer in particular, but applicable to other life situations too. In it, she mentioned a thought-provoking article by Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor, titled "Welcome to Cancerland," which I read some years ago.

Dh & I (at home on a "staycation" this week) were watching a repeat of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Thursday morning (Wednesday night's show?) -- and lo & behold, his guest was... Barbara Ehrenreich, promoting her new book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." (You can find the interview clip on his website if you are in the States -- in Canada, clips are supposedly available on The Comedy Network site, but this one wasn't on there, at least not yet or not that I could find.)

She made some excellent points about how the flipside of our culture's relentless focus on the positive is that nobody really wants to hear about anything bad, and certainly not your problems. She called it an "empathy deficit."

Well, that certainly made me sit & take notice (if I hadn't been already). I haven't read her book (yet)(am looking forward to it), but her thesis certainly struck a chord with me, as an infertile/stillbirth mother -- the idea that people really don't want to hear about how you're REALLY feeling, urge you to "stay positive" and tell you they just KNOW this next cycle is going to be the one (etc., etc.).

I'm not saying that positive thinking is totally without merit -- but insisting that people going through a rough time MUST stay relentlessly positive, discouraging them from giving voice to the grief and fear that they rightly must be feeling -- is not helpful either.



  1. I'm DYING to read the book, and I absolutely adore Barbara Erenreich in everything of hers I've ever read. I saw that interview with Jon Stewart, too, and had many of the same thoughts as you about how her point applies perfectly to IF/loss. I absolutely agree with her that people encourage others to be positive as a way of shutting down discussions they just don't want to have and as a way to avoid the discomfort of having to abide with someone who is going through a difficult experience. And "empathy deficit" is such a brilliant phrase - it really sums up so many things wrong with our culture.

  2. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. Fascinating. I totally see the connection between my loss (my daughter was stillborn at 38 weeks) and this topic. I think that this type of "positive thinking" is exactly why stillbirth is not talked about, and people avoid us and ignore our loss. Our losses just don't fit into that realm of positive thinking, i.e., you eat all your veggies, exercise, abstain from alcohol and positively imagine your child's birth in semi-darkness with peruvian flute music, then you have a healthy happy baby. I did all that, and my baby still died for no reason. I got fired up after seeing her on Jon Stewart, sorry. I am picking up the book. Thanks again.

  3. I know that in sharing about my own losses/difficulties, I tend to want to leave people on a positive note. "But things are looking up! But I'm doing better now!" I don't know why I feel this compulsion--maybe what you wrote here has something to do with it.

  4. Yep, yep, yep.

    Today is the 4th anniversary of our loss. (Sometimes i'm still waiting for God to say, "Oops!" and take it back.)

    I posted on it briefly & shared that i believe our time of having a chance at a child is now past. And that i'm struggling with feeling bitter & that God is cruel.

    And i STILL get a (well meaning) "just relax & it will happen for you."

    I want to leave a positive note for folks, too, but there can be a bit more than thoughtlessness behind this relentless positiveness.

    And (as someone posted to me on a different area, that of chronic illness) some folks who choose to hold on to this "it will happen for you!" are fearful. They don't want bad things coming into their lives & they don't want to hear about you 'cause if it happens to you it can happen to them, too.

    So yeah, i get you. I'm so entirely there.

  5. Absolutely agree with this post. After infertility problems and a stillbirth myself I found it intensly annoying when people tried to find a silver lining - it only served to belittle my loss.

    It was so much better when people said they were sorry and they didn't know what to say.

    Today is the 1st anniversary of Abigail's death and I have posted a song on facebook that captures my emotions. People will reply about trivia but this.... oh noooo

  6. Very interesting. I've always felt that our society is too focused on the bad, the devastating, the "my experience is worse than yours." A casual flip through any newspaper has a 20:1 ratio of negative news stories vs. good. so I wonder if we've become desensitized to difficulties, such that we want to gloss over it. Somthing to think about.

  7. Hmm, interesting point of view. Certainly our culture doesn't like to listen/empathize re: difficult life-situations ... be it infertility, stillbirth, cancer, addiction, etc etc etc. I always blamed it on our discomfort with powerlessness, i.e. if we can't "fix" it then we don't like to hear about it. But this makes sense to me: perhaps we are too enthusiastic with our cheerleading efforts. It's really okay to be sad, grieve, and remember the tough stuff that makes us who we are.

  8. Sometimes it feels it is just not ok to feel down. Sometimes I pretend I'm ok to avoid people trying to cheer me up.
    Trying to learn to just ask for a hug...

  9. How funny! I tweeted the "empathy deficit" line right after watching Jon Stewart's interview with Barbara last week. Totally agree. I think the relentless positivity (is that a word?) culture made me feel worse when I was already feeling bad about my infertility experience. I think there's a fair amount of that problem with the infertility community. I have to hold my tongue when I read people telling other people to "stay positive." Sometimes you just need to live in the sadness to make sense of it. We have a range of emotions for a reason. We can't all be happy all of the time.

    p.s. As a Canadian you might be interested to know I saw Gordon Lightfoot perform Saturday night in Napa Vally, CA. Talk about real joy! It was a thrill to see him. He is one talented guy. Carefree Highway, anyone?

  10. I will look for this clip. In the US (not sure about Canada) runs has this show.

    Thank you for posting about this. I also think the "be positive" culture comes from books like The Secrete. Somehow, if we do the right thing, think the right thoughts, we are supposed to be able make our desired result happen. If it doesn't happen, then we are to blame for not being positive enough.

  11. I agree. I understand the need for positive thinking. But sometimes things just suck and I want people to agree with me that things suck and not blow smoke up my a$$.

  12. TOTALLY!(If you can forgive the valley speak). I remember when I was so upset and my girlfriend just say, that must be so hard and that's all it took for me to fall apart and start crying cause that's all I needed to hear. Not rahrahrah, keep a stiff upper lip, never mind, it's all good, etc. We all know how to be positive, but denying the truth in the face of tragedy is unhealthy and creates value only for the person who doesn't want to believe that bad things happen to good people.

    Believe me, as a Buddhist, our philosophy is all about positivity but it's also about empathy and compassion.

  13. It sounds as though I could've written this, so I'm off to read it -- thank you for the pointer. I cannot STAND "think positive!" bullshit -- it's a major reason I haven't been able to return to yoga after being involved for over seven years prior to Maddy's death, because it seems the instructors around here are more "lifestyle coaches" than people actually interested in healing and physical development. To me "positive thinking" is just a pair of blinders. I'm not saying we need to scare ourselves shitless and immobile, but we do -- as a society -- need to learn to deal with bad news with open honesty and recognize pain and suffering and grief exist. Otherwise, I think you're just breeding fear and ignorance.

    I may even recommend this for my bookclub.

  14. and i think the tendency is to just stay away until the people are 'better' and back to normal and back to positive thinking.

  15. I totally agree with so many here - having gone through infertility and "resolved" to live child free and then experiencing the death of my brother's only child Christopher at the age of 16 at the hands a drunk hit and run driver- I've certainly experienced people's relentless efforts to be positive and say things they think will make it better - well guess what people, sometimes NOTHING makes it better except a friend who is willing to listen without judgement and agree that right now, in this moment it sucks.. too few people are comfortable doing that for each other.. and saying "positive" things is sometimes hurtful and demeaning..

    we are so afraid of our feelings!!! But the only way is through to the other side - there is no going around the edges.. just have to wade through the muck up to your neck.. and find that there just might be something on the other side after all..

    hugs, Karen -

  16. Well, I loved M's post. I am interested in reading the book. I think like most things, there is a positive and a negative side to positive thinking and it only becomes a problem when someone places positive thinking on someone who doesn't benefit from it.

  17. Thank you for writing this! I have so often found that people do not want to hear about the "ugly." They only want to share in the joy, not in the heartache. As much as I would love to stay positive all of the time, it just isn't going to happen. And as a pp said, I do sometimes feel like people shudder a little when they hear our story because they don't want the bad to happen to them too.

  18. While I certainly understand the point made about trying to force positive thoughts on someone who is down and out about any situation, it has been my experience that we sometimes tend to dwell too much on what is negative in our lives and lose sight of what is positive. This happened to me...I could not have children because of endometriosis and subsequent hysterectomy, nor could I adopt or foster. It seems that I talked about this pain so much, seeking empathy and commiseration that I felt awful all the time. I never really felt better by talking about this stuff, even to folks who could understand. Then it became my poor finances and other negative issues in my life and before I realized what was happening, I did not feel any joy at all for years...was ready to commit suicide when a book about Law of Attraction philosophies came into my life...and saved it. I am here today because of practicing these techniques, and I think the one thing that people tend to misunderstand that this is NOT about being "Polly Positive" all the time, this is about learning how to take more control of your emotions and it is EXTREMELY empowering. My life has changed in such wonderful ways because of this practice. I am a natural empath, always will be, but I talk to others in a way that does not let them drown in their sorrows and lose themselves in it, but I also do not tell them to just forget about their issues and be happy, either. There is healing work that can be done to finally release some of these past issues for all of us that will help us to truly move forward with greater ease and joy. And by the way, I find that our society is still mostly about negative thinking as a whole...

  19. Very thoughtfull post on Positive Thinking. It should be very much helpfull.

    Karim - Positive thinking