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When Being Positive Can Hurt You and What To Do About It

Rose Colored Glasses

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

While confiding in a friend one day, I mentioned how I’d been feeling a little blue.

“Snap out of it,” he said, matter-of-factly.

While this wasn’t the first time I’d received advice like this, or heard someone else being on the receiving end of the likes of it, it still left me feeling as if there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just snap out of it.

He went on: “You’ve just got to be positive.”

If only it was that easy to turn off that negativity switch in your head permanently, and dial up the one labeled “sunshine and rainbows” to 24/7.

Let’s get real here: For someone who’s struggling with challenging circumstances like depression, heartbreak, or even major self-doubt, and isn’t ready to put on the rose-tinted glasses just yet, pretending to be positive isn’t going to work (nor is it healthy).

Forcing yourself to jump on the positivity bandwagon when you really feel like crawling into a cave may even create more feelings of confusion and disconnectedness (I’ve been there, done that), and distract you from the things you should be doing to get better.

Instead of trying to sweep difficult feelings under the rug and put on an upbeat front, here’s what you can do to make them work for you:

Be okay with feeling sad and asking for help.

Sometimes, life does feels like crap.

It’s okay to feel that way—life doesn’t have to feel happy, positive, and easy all the time. I’m not asking you to wallow in self-indulgent pity indefinitely, but to be present with this emotion, giving yourself time to experience and respect it.

It’s also fine to be okay with the fact that that cheesy, motivational poster your friend emailed to you isn’t making it all better. You don’t need to feel guilty or embarrassed about not connecting with someone else’s way of coping with the hard stuff.

In fact, the “negative” emotions you experience are just as important as the positive ones in helping you cope with life’s ups and downs because they give you vital clues about what’s going on in your life, as well as help you evaluate and give meaning to your circumstances.

Often, these emotions point to the fact that something needs to be fixed, and while not every difficult situation has a straightforward solution, what you can do get through this time is to ask for help.

Take this opportunity to reach out to the people who are important to you—allowing yourself to be vulnerable to someone you care about will also give them permission to help and feel more deeply connected to you.

Make self-compassion a part of your life.

When I’m running low on my positivity reserves, one thing I find helpful with coping is to give myself compassion. This doesn’t mean skating over painful conflicts or letting myself off the hook when I make a mistake; it means that I:

  • Review my actions and acknowledge why I chose to act a certain way after I’ve made a mistake instead of being harsh and judgemental (“you reacted this way because you were feeling hurt” versus “you’re such a loser”).
  • Accept that I’m not perfect after an unexpected binge, examine why it happened, and choose to make a healthier choice at my next meal instead of giving up on eating healthily altogether.
  • Allow myself to go for a walk because I want to instead of subscribing to the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality by forcing myself to go to the gym even though I’m not feeling up for it.

There’s no need for a fake upbeat façade or over-the-top cheerleading here; just being understanding, kind, and nurturing toward you.

Focus on tiny steps you can take every single day.

Now that you’ve deleted that cheesy motivational poster, ask yourself, “What steps can I take to help me feel better and get out of this slump?”

This could be:

  • Scheduling an appointment with your boss to discuss why the frequent late nights at the office aren’t working for you.
  • Spending five minutes before bed meditating to calm your mind so you don’t spend the night tossing and turning, and feel exhausted the next day.
  • Taking an hour on Sunday to prepare all the ingredients you need for your week’s lunches so you don’t have to eat the foods that trigger your binge eating.
  • Sitting with your partner to tell him or her that you’re not happy, and haven’t been for awhile, and that you’d like to figure out why together.
  • Letting your friend know that she hurt your feelings instead of trying to ignore the tension and discomfort between the both of you.

Taking steps to change instead of faking an upbeat front can do wonders in helping you to lift those heavy, grey clouds off your shoulders.

And remember, small wins add up to bigger wins, and more reasons to start feeling happier, more confident, and in the perfect position to feel positive…when you really mean it.

Rose colored glasses image via Shutterstock

About Michele Lian

Michele Lian is a food coach, group exercise trainer, author and all-round science geek who’s on a mission to empower people all over the world with healthy-eating and strength-building superpowers. Connect with her on michelelian.com, where she teaches foodies how to eat what they want, lose weight and conquer their cravings, or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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  • Jessica Toussaint

    I liked this. I only skimmed it, but I agree with its main points. As much as its important to be positive, there will be times where that isn’t possible at the moment. We need to accept where we are and, slowly, find ways to get back on track. By doing small things day by day and reaching out for help, we will get back to positivity. Everything takes time. Jumping to positivity when your down is fake positivity. You’ll feel much worse. Michele Lian, this was written wonderfully. This is something that may people don’t understand, and you tackled this issue very well. Great job :)!

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  • Diane Elayne Dees

    In the case of depression, it’s deadly to “think positively.” As a psychotherapist, one of my jobs is to help undo all of the cult-like “positive thinking” requirements that have been pushed onto my clients by the culture (U.S.) and often, by those in the mental health field. The acceptance of pain, just as it is, right now, is absolutely necessary if one is to learn to cope with–and recover from–depression. Thanks for writing this.

  • Hi Michele,

    My shifts occur when I do not bury my negative feelings. I exploded – badly – by burying my feelings. Fab post and point; you can’t get over something that’s still in you. I am not even super positive these days, nor am I negative. I breathe deeply and spend more time in the moment to become who I really am. The watcher, not the ego. The observer, not the mind. Going beyond polarity and thought allows one to be with feelings, to release the feelings and to resist nothing, being largely at peace because you’re being spaceless, limitless awareness.

    Yeah I feel this way for about 4 seconds of the day but I’m getting there 😉 Seriously though, I’m being present which allows for my feelings to flow me, without fighting them, and this practice has helped me to breathe in, relax and experience both my good and bad feelings when they occur.

    Ryan

  • LaTrice Dowe

    Staying positive is a challenge, especially when you’re feeling down. Although feeling sad is the worst feeling in the world, it’s temporary. I feel it’s important to bag your bags, and move forward. There’s no need to remain stuck.

    Three years ago, I lost my job. I was unemployed for almost one year. I would get up every morning submitting job applications from my laptop. I went to several job interviews, hoping for a call back or an offer. None came. I had to remain positive for my own sanity, despite how difficult it was for me to do that. No matter how often my sister tells me to remain optimistic, I felt she didn’t understand what I was going through. At least I did find a job-eight months later.

    Thank you, Michele, for sharing your story.

  • I’m a huge advocate of being positive but within reason. There’s a huge difference between blind optimism and having a positive mindset but when things are consistently not going well, it’s important to be honest, and reflect upon what is happening and seek the perspective of another. 🙂

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  • We ought to look at reality as it is and lower our expectation especially when the situation is beyond our control. If we’re the type of person that always discount the positives, then I think it’s all right to be mindful in looking for the positives. When we’re looking for the positives in an unpleasant event, we’re looking to shift our mindset and reframe the events that might be causing unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

    Thanks, Michelle!

    Eugene

  • Michele Lian

    I definitely agree with you, Amelia. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Michele Lian

    Thank you, Jessica! 🙂

  • Michele Lian

    You’re on point there, Eugene! Learning to look at situations as they are and letting go of what we can’t control is definitely a skill many of us (me included) can benefit from. And yes, the most helpful solution is often shifting our mindset and reframing our thoughts. Thank you for reading 🙂

  • Michele Lian

    I’m so glad you stayed strong and got out of that funk, LaTrice 🙂 Thank you for reading, and onward and upward! xo

  • Michele Lian

    Ryan, I love your perspective and awareness. I’ve seen this a lot in people too–they bury their feelings and avoid dealing with the unpleasantness of it all because they think that saying “yes, I feel what I feel” somehow turns them into negative people. Inevitably, they implode. Like you say: Be present, let your feelings flow and don’t fight them. They will pass with more ease 🙂

  • Michele Lian

    Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Diane! Your perspective as a mental health professional really means a lot to me, and your message of accepting pain to heal is so important.