When Positive Thinking Breaks Your Heart

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

I watched as he sat on my couch. Face in hands. Unable to speak because of the tears. Broken.

He took a deep breath: “The call came in Thursday afternoon. A school bus was on a narrow road, and the driver overcorrected when he met a car. The back wheels slipped off the pavement, and the bus fell into a ditch.” He gasped again as he described the 9–1–1 call he had to dispatch.

“There were only a few injuries. Nothing really that major. They got nearly everyone out of the bus, plus the bus driver. Over forty kids. Luckily, a few kids had already been dropped off.”

He paused and looked at the ceiling. “Then the bus caught fire. It had taken down some electric lines when it fell, and it was taking too long for the electric company to get out there. We didn’t have any way to turn off the power.”

“Only one student was left on the bus. One kid! A sixth-grade girl. They were talking to her, trying to help her untangle herself since they couldn’t reach her. They tried everything, but then the fire started to reach her and the first responder. They couldn’t get her out.”

My instinct was to comfort him, to make him feel better after this tragedy. Who wants to linger in pain like this, especially since he had done everything he could to prevent the death.

Add to this the fact that he had a daughter who was about the same age as the girl who died. “I don’t know how she would have responded if she’d been in that situation.”

Get him fixed!

After a crisis, we often rush to see the benefits or lessons learned from our pain. Or, if we allow ourselves to hurt, others prod us to search for the values in our experiences. Truth is, we haven’t yet figured out what hit us. Our emotions are all over the place or stuck in the bottom of the well. We haven’t felt the feelings enough to start looking for ways to accept the situation.

“Toxic positivity” describes this state of always looking at benefits instead of recognizing all facets of a situation. This sounds peculiar because who sees positivity as poisonous? We want to believe having a “positive outlook” on all of life’s situations will help us to experience non-stop good feelings.

Positivity is valuable, but sometimes, it’s oversold. Life introduces up and down emotions. It’s not that some are inherently bad. We may just not like feeling them.

Feelings are, though. We enjoy some more than others, but all of them are needed for us to live life in full-color. The contrast between ups and downs makes our feelings more intense. We experience intense joy most when we’ve had intense sorrow as a contrast.

We won’t always be comfortable with our feelings. Telling ourselves we “shouldn’t” feel a certain way usually intensifies those feelings instead of diminishing them. They may be banished for a time, but those exiles come home eventually.

The Problem with Always Seeing the “Bright Side”

Toxic positivity would have us paint all of life in glorious, uplifting patterns. It minimizes (or denies) any chaos we feel, looking only for order and calm. Unrealistically. Recovering from difficult feelings and experiences requires acknowledging those things exist. If we gloss them over, we run the risk of prolonging them.

Additionally, toxic positivity drives a wedge between the sufferer and the would-be comforter. Grief and betrayal are not resolved by the uttering of a nice platitude. Hearing the adage often creates anger, guilt or disappointment instead of comfort.

People who subscribe to toxic positivity seem uncomfortable with feelings of apprehension, anxiety, fear, sadness. They are doubly so if they feel responsible for solving another person’s feelings. They may genuinely have a desire to comfort, but their own anxiety motivates them to rush the other person’s process.

Some feelings cannot be solved but have to be experienced. When someone dies, for example, sadness, loneliness and anger are normal feelings. A contradictory contentment can also be felt if the mourner believes the deceased is “in a better place,” “not sick anymore,” “not struggling.”

People arrive at their own resolutions in different times and ways, though. Rushing to install our own positive spin hurts and insults others if it feels like we are minimizing the process. While someone may believe in “a better place,” they may hurt so much they cannot embrace the idea yet. The process cannot be hurried.

Ideas for healing the hurt

· Acknowledge the whole gamut of feelings. There may be resentment and love, fatigue and energy, resignation and determination, all at the same time. Feelings are not based on logic.

· Sit with those feelings. Reflect on how each one fits into the picture and how strongly you are experiencing the emotion.

· Evaluate: is this feeling a big factor which I cannot easily let go? Do I need to examine it in more detail? Is it insignificant?

· Save your judgment for later. You are evaluating where you are, not judging things as good or bad. Avoid “should” or “shouldn’t.” Just give a nod to what is there at that time.

· Allow yourself time to think about these things as individually as possible. Write in a journal the things you’re experiencing, again without judgment. As you run out of things to add to the list, focus on the next step.

· Decide what things you want to spend your time on. Once you’ve fully felt your feelings, you can choose what you need to explore further. You may put some things on the back burner for awhile.

· Find someone with whom you can be honest and balanced. Approach someone who can look at all sides of a situation and allow you to express the confusion you feel. Healing comes through untangling the knots, not pretending the knots aren’t there.

The End of the Story

So, what did I end up telling my client? I realized the trauma called for his ability to sit with the anguish. He needed my validation of his feelings and to know he wasn’t alone in the confusion.

“When I was 18,” I began, “I had all the answers. ‘They’re in a better place.’ ‘Perhaps something bad was going to happen to them, and this was more merciful.’ That type of thing.

“Now that I’m older, I have few answers. I don’t understand why children die horrible deaths. I don’t understand why grief hurts so much. Why things don’t always work out like they do in the movies.

“Take your time with this, though. Grieve. Be angry and sad at the injustice of it all. Be relieved it wasn’t your daughter. You don’t have to put a brave face on this. You will be okay, but that’s further down the road. For right now, let the pain and memories suck. There’s no shortcut. You have to go through, but it’s not forever. And, you don’t have to do it alone.”

C. J. Clinton is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She feels honored to help others process through their pain at their own pace.

Although I am glad you read this blog, this does not establish a therapist-client relationship. If you think you might hurt yourself or others, take care of yourself and call 9–1–1 or go to your nearest emergency room.

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