The trap of positive thinking: mandatory optimism.

Expressing our emotions, including the negative ones, is crucial for our well-being.

When we try to ignore negative emotions such as sadness or anger, or when we self-censure our complaints and change them to a forced “yes I can,” we risk falling into the trap of positive thinking.

This is the main takeaway of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Smile or Die”. Ehrenreich wrote this book in response to the pink-tainted world she faced after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Understandably, her disease made her feel emotionally unstable. Full of uncertainty, she looked for communities to talk about how she felt.  What she found instead was a kind of mandatory optimism. Some even told her that the cancer was a gift and she should embrace it as such. She didn’t get it and neither do I. Why should we take such a serious illness lightly?

Positive attitude… it’s all about balance.

Having a positive outlook towards life has many benefits, that is undeniable. The attitude and integrity with which we face difficult situations has a lot to do with how we get out of these. But, like everything in life, our optimism also has to be balanced with action, since not everything depends on attitude alone.

That’s life: There are hard-working people who are suddenly unemployed. Some lead a healthy lifestyle and become ill. There are people in love who are not reciprocated. There are also people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as Ehrenreichen mentions in her book, it is cruel to tell people who have to deal with great difficulties that everything is in their head. And that the only thing they have to do to get out of a rut is to have a positive attitude.

Psychologist Nacho Coller also has something to add regarding the mandatory optimism philosophy:

Let’s make things clear, we are not perfect, nor is there complete happiness, nor do we have superhuman powers. And yes, having a bad time or a bad season is common and does not make you stupid.

Let’s avoid falling into the trap.

I don’t want to repeat what others have said so eloquently already. But I’d like to add that feeling sad, angry, frustrated or sensitive (sometimes, all of the above … at the same time) is human. They are emotions that, although not as popular as happiness, are still valid. And beyond that, they’re necessary.

There are many situations in which it is appropriate to feel bad. So let’s not ask ourselves to be always happy or optimistic. There is no need or reason to be perfect.

Of course, this does not mean that we should rejoice in our own sadness. But let us do our best to avoid the trap of full-time positive thinking and give ourselves permission to live our emotions. Because the alternative is much less healthy: bottling up our own uncomfortable feelings. This can result in emotional blockages, guilt and resentment.

Just as Barbara Ehrenreich fought and beat her illness without wearing a mask of false optimism, let’s keep facing the challenges that life presents us without hiding who we are.

Emotions are meant to be felt.