The Positive Attitude Paradox
One of my clients got two very different reactions to saying nearly the exact same thing in the past week. He was pretty surprised when I told him which one shows that he’s moving in the right direction in terms of the change he desires in his life. A bit of background—this client has very significant, chronic health issues, and his default way of telling people about his situation is to play it down and basically say, “Everything is OK.” So, here are the two scenarios from the past week:
1. He told a friend about his ongoing issues, and the friend said, “Wow, you are just such an inspiration. Your attitude is amazing, and I’m just always so impressed by how you are handling all of this. (This is the response he’s used to getting.)
2. A couple days later, he told a friend how he got a big scratch on his forehead—that he walked into a branch, because a recent eye surgery has decreased his peripheral vision. He said, “It’s OK. It’s just one more thing to keep me humble.” Her demeanor changed immediately from concern to exasperation as she said, “Haven’t you had enough?” She then walked away and didn’t have much to do with him the rest of the night. (This was a very different response than he’s used to and it was very puzzling to him.)
Would you be as surprised as he was to know that it was the second reaction that had me excited for him? This man’s survival mechanism is his “positive attitude,” and it’s actually what is holding him back from real healing. But wait, isn’t a positive attitude supposed to be good for us? Isn’t it supposed to even lead to better health? Let me explain why I disagree in this man’s case and in many cases, if the goal is true well-being.
Early in life, we all absorb the feeling that there is something wrong with us being exactly the way we are. This Learned Distress becomes embedded in our sense of self, and it becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative moments and situations. As we absorb Learned Distress, our brains also develop a survival mechanism that allows us to fit well with our surroundings and keep moving through life.
One of these survival mechanisms is to bury the feeling that there’s something wrong and make it seem like everything is OK. That’s how my health-challenged client feels he needs to be in order to survive. He feels safest when he is being the “model patient” or the “strong, positive being in the face of tremendous odds.” His “positive attitude” doesn’t mean that the Learned Distress isn’t there; it just means that he buries or denies it and then has to pretend like everything is OK, even though he tells me that he has some level of health crisis happening every day. The problem with burying the Learned Distress is that as long as it is buried, it can’t unlearned, and it actually keeps intensifying over time. As this intensification happens, his health issues get bigger and he has to work harder to say, “But, it’s all OK.”
When people with buried Learned Distress seek my help in releasing it, the first thing that happens is that it comes out of hiding. All the negative feelings they have so carefully kept under wraps for their entire lives start to come up, and their survival mechanism starts to fall apart. I’m always excited to see this happen, as I know it means that their brains are allowing them to release a deeply controlled layer of negative feeling, and this means they are well on their way to having their natural well-being generate moments in that area of their lives, instead of Learned Distress.
With this client, a huge sign that his survival mechanism is falling apart is the second reaction that he got this week. Instead of, “Oh, you’re so brave and positive,” it was, “Haven’t you had enough?” People respond automatically to us based on how we feel about being ourselves, so this tells me that his sense of self is at the point of saying, “Enough of being sick! I’m tired of pretending everything is OK when it really isn’t OK at all.” This is the point where the brain will actually allow a layer of Learned Distress to start peeling away. When layers are peeled off, natural well-being can expand to take its rightful place as the automatic, generating force in life, and moments and situations that are generated from well-being feel good effortlessly.
This client has been through other, less intense layers of change before, and they’ve always resulted in him experiencing situations that are easier and feel better than anything he’s ever had happen in his life. Moments generated from well-being have a very different quality than moments generated by the “positive attitude” that is really just a false front for Learned Distress. They are characterized by a surprising sense of ease and joy that can never come when someone is fighting back the feeling that something is wrong with them. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to seeing what surprises this cycle of change will bring for my health-challenged client.
Do you ever feel the struggle of saying, “It’s all OK,” when you know deep inside that it really isn’t? Does it feel like something inside you is coming close to overcoming your ability to keep a positive attitude? Believe it or not, there is something even better waiting for you when you can let all of that fall apart, so your true well-being can operate more freely in your life.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.