Raising positivity isn’t always the answer. Sometimes the answer is giving ourselves “permission to be human.”
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Life is hard, sometimes devastating. Too many people around the world can attest to that, from those in Washington, Illinois to the Philippines, whose lives were forever altered recently by heartbreaking natural events. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a child, spouse, parent, friend, or job can relate. Countless others afflicted by disease, crime, loneliness or any other life challenge can as well. We’ve all been touched by adversity in some way.
As I wrap up this blog series on positivity, I can’t help but think about the role of positivity during adverse times. There is definitely a need for positivity during adversity.
While going through my second round of breast cancer, I remember many moments of gratitude and humor. For instance, as I was being wheeled into a long 7-hour surgery, under light sedation, l noticed the ashen faces of my beau, my sister, and my brother-in-law, all faithful supporters, staring off into the distance. Sensing their worry, I held up my hand, separated my fingers between my middle and ring fingers, and proclaimed, “At least I can still do this!”
What? Not being Star Wars fans, we weren’t even certain what that meant! But it was hilarious at the time and broke up the tension. We still laugh about it today.
On the other hand, are we expected to put on a brave face, crack a joke, and practice positivity through the grief, anguish, and anxiety inherent in difficult life situations? I don’t think so.
Although there is a role for positivity during adversity, raising positivity isn’t always the answer. Cultivating positive emotions isn’t always appropriate or even helpful for everyone all the time. It’s not a cure-all.
We’re human beings, not robots. As humans, we experience both positive and negative emotions. In the words of Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, former Harvard lecturer, and lead faculty, we must “give ourselves permission to be human” in order to flourish and become happier. The phrase refers to the unconditional acceptance of all our emotions – both positive and negative.
In other words, cultivating only positive emotions while repressing negative ones isn’t a healthy approach to life and doesn’t lead to greater happiness. In fact, repressing intense emotions actually intensifies them.
Prove it to yourself with this simple exercise. Pretend that there is a pink elephant standing across the room from you, about 10 feet away. It’s strange, but can you visualize it? For the next 30 seconds, do NOT think about that pink elephant in the room.
If you’re like most people, all you can think about now is that pink elephant. Intense emotions are similar – they intensify when we try not to think about them.
I recently worked 1:1 with a woman whose 37-year-old son passed away, a senseless death, leaving behind a wife and two young children. As she approached the two year anniversary of her son’s death, she expressed her own version of “permission to be human,” saying the following:
“Today was a pretty rough day. Yesterday was better, and who knows what tomorrow will be? I guess that’s just the way it is right now.”
She never asked for that burden. She certainly didn’t want it. But she actively accepted it. She savored the positive moments, celebrating her son’s life in tangible, meaningful ways and reliving fond memories with her family. And when anger and sadness rose to the surface, she expressed rather than suppressed them.
While raising positivity is often helpful, promoting creativity and resilience, it isn’t always the answer. As Tal would say, sometimes we need to just give ourselves permission to be human.
With gratitude for positivity and permission to be human,
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