Several years ago I read the following: “It’s not a hot flash, it’s a power surge.” Now at the time, I had never had a hot flash. I wasn’t even sure I knew anyone who had hot flashes, but instinctively, I took offense at this. There was something about the relentless optimism I saw being expressed that sounded like utter crap to me. What little I’d heard told me that these were unpleasant experiences and pretending they weren’t was disingenuous, as well as shaming to anyone who didn’t share the experience. (I can assure you that they are the absolute opposite of a power surge; they suck the energy right out of you.)
I was reminded of this when I recently heard an interview on the radio with author Barbara Ehrenreich who recently released her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The seeds of the book were in her experience with being diagnosed with breast cancer, where she found herself immersed in a culture of “positive thinking.”
When Ehrenreich was diagnosed, she found that the pervasive tone in the breast cancer community was a cultish optimism that left her feeling lonely and denied. Her anger and outrage around the insufficiency of information about the cancer’s cause and treatments was real. Her experience was that of isolation that increased the more she delved into books, articles and support groups that pushed a positive attitude, lots of pink, and breast cancer teddy bears. Nothing seemed to support her as she went through feelings of pain or anger.
I think about the many times friends had come to me with their problems, their pain, their disappointments, and I tried to cheer them up, help them find the bright side. I also think about times that the situation was reversed, and how I felt under those circumstances.
Despite what we think is needed by those who turn to us for support, most of the time the one thing they need is to be heard. Sometimes our life circumstances are pretty crappy. Disease, divorce, lay-offs, happen, and they happen to everyone, and everyone feels angry, sad or frustrated in response.
So, picture yourself at a point where you were experiencing authentic feelings of pain, fear or anger, and imagine you are being told to cheer up, that things are not as bad as you think, and if you’d just see what a great opportunity this crappy experience is, you will realize that it is the greatest thing that ever happened to you.
In essence, you are being told that your feelings are not only invalid, but also inappropriate. Your very reality is being repudiated.
I’m sure that I am not alone in finding that nothing is more certain to change my mood for the worse than someone telling me to “Smile.” So often my expression is not expressive of my mood; I’m most likely to be lost in thought, happily ensconced in a pleasant, internal world. Suddenly, the directive to display a “positive” expression is an imposition, an assertion that the speaker knows what’s best for me. It makes me crazy.
Believing that you know best for someone else is a conviction that may come from a place of good intentions, but no matter how good our intentions may be, they are our intentions for another. It is presumptuous to assume that we know what is right for that person. Attempting to talk someone around to a particular point of view or that they be, act or feel a particular way is a subtle act of aggression.
When we’re dealing with someone who already has been victimized by disease or circumstance, the last thing they need from their friends is controlling behavior. What they are genuinely seeking is a loving, compassionate presence.
Being completely present with one who is suffering means being able to be present with the suffering itself. This, you may recall, is the very definition of compassion. True compassionate presence is not about denying someone his experience with the dark realities he is experiencing; instead, it provides illumination that allows him to explore all the aspects of his situation with clarity.