Person You: “Man I had a really crappy day. I just learned that my co-worker, whom I can’t stand, got a promotion and I feel mad, jealous, and worried that maybe I suck. I am just really spinning.”
Friend 1: “Oh you shouldn’t think that way about yourself. You are fantastic. If you think positively you will be able to turn it around. You are on the upswing, I promise.”
Friend 2: “Wow! Why do you think that way about yourself? I don’t like it when you think such negative things about yourself.”
Friend 3: “Oh bummer. I had a great workout yesterday. It really helped lift me out a bad mood.”
Friend 4: “Well, maybe the boss just felt they had to promote them because they had been there longer. What you should do is start coming in early and you will outshine that other person.”
What do you most want from relationships when you are feeling injured or discouraged? What do you imagine friends 1, 2, 3, 4 felt when they heard their friend’s suffering, and what did you yourself feel when you read the first statement? How do you respond to friends when they are down? How would you ideally like to be responded to?
Look, I think the stuff Marty Seligman at The Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania is doing is pretty darn cool. I like positive psychology. I like not just looking at what is wrong and wounded about people but what is right and great. What I don’t agree with is the way in which positive thinking can be another name for callous, non relational, and sometimes delusional thinking. When positive thinking training comes as a replacement for learning how to be attuned to another person’s experience, good or bad, it leaves us all feeling a little more lonely, a little more ashamed and a little more guarded. This really bums me out. Our complexities are what make us interesting and our vulnerabilities allow us to be really connected. The question is, can we tolerate our vulnerabilities enough to really get close to other people?
The hidden and perhaps unintended messages sent from the friends above are: “I don’t want to listen to your feelings right now”, “I know better than you how to get out of this situation”, “Something is wrong with you for feeling the way you do” and “You need to be feeling something different than what you are feeling right now.” We all do this, subtly and not-so-subtly, at times, and I think the positive thinking movement has made our ability to relate to one another in painful places even worse.
The friends above could have chosen a radically different approach than the pushing away or cliched advice-giving than they offered. They could have practiced just listening quietly, maybe saying, “I don’t know what to tell you, but I am really here with you.” It’s also totally kosher in authentic relationships to say, “I can’t take this in right now. It’s making me anxious myself.” I had a friend call in distress recently while my two young sons were yelling in the background, and with love and care I had to say “You matter to me and I want to give your important feelings my undivided attention, I just can’t right now. Can we talk tomorrow so I can really be with you?”
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book (“Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”) criticizing the Positive Psychology movement. I don’t think she hates positive psychology as much as her naysayers claim. She just wants us to live honestly and not reject any of our feelings.
“…she believes that negative thinking is just as delusional as unquestioned positive thinking. She hopes to see a day when corporate employees “walk out when the motivational speakers start talking,” she said. “It’s all about control and money.” Her goal? To encourage realism, “trying to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.” (NYtimes.com / Ellin / Dec. 2009)
What is the alternative to delusional positive thinking?
The alternative is relational empathy, honesty and vulnerability. But to do those well we have to be willing to tolerate discomfort, let go of needing to fix anything, tell sometimes awkward or uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and practice open communication.
Here is a great little Brene Brown video that went viral a few months back that exemplifies this in a short, clear and playful-cartoony way. I think you will really get what I am saying from this short snippet. Key quote from this video “What makes something better is connection.” We need the listening heart of a friend, not stale positive thinking and cliched advice.
For a more socio-political discussion of empathy check out Roman Krznaric’s Ted Talk. He also just wrote a great book, published by the School of Life.
And finally, to Person You above, I just want to say, “Man that sucks. I totally get why it stirs up all this self doubt. Ugh…I have so been there. I am really sorry and I am on your side. -silence- ”
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