If you’re in pain, don’t “be positive.” Be honest.

August 1, 2018

I often hear people with pain and other chronic health conditions say the following: “I am trying to be positive, but it is so hard!” Other people see us suffering and sometimes tell us to “just be positive,” as if that is going to solve our problems. I live with a painful, life changing neurological movement disorder called dystonia and I know how hard it is to be positive and how it feels to be told that all we need to do is be more positive, which is basically a disregard for how hard the struggle is.

For many years I suffered with brutal symptoms of pain, along with severe involuntary muscles contractions 24/7, anxiety, and deep depression. “Being positive” was not even in my vocabulary. I wanted to die and everything in life, and I mean everything, sucked! That was my reality and if you read my story, you will see just how profound my depths of helplessness and hopelessness, and I still suffer with all of the same challenges to varying degrees. The difference now is my mindset which has been the catalyst for change.

When our health limits our activities (in my case I could barely do anything other than roll around on the floor all day in pain for years) and we lose parts, if not all, of the life we once had as I did, it is difficult to not be sad, angry, and scared, to name just a few emotions. This is why “being positive” is so hard. But what exactly does one mean when they say, “be positive” or “I am trying to be positive?” It is a different answer for everyone I’m sure. I think more than anything, it means being optimistic, but as I discuss below, we have to be optimistic about something tangible and realistic based on positive experiences and outcomes, such as a treatment that helps or when others understand our plight (just two of many examples). Any ounce of help gives us hope which creates optimism about getting better, fostering a “be positive” attitude; and when you find things that help, hold onto them for dear life.

To me, being positive is a mindset where we acknowledge the struggle and focus on solutions rather than problems; looking at obstacles as challenges to overcome rather than setbacks. It does not mean denying the existence of mental and physical pain that everyone experiences to varying degrees. If we deny it or ignore it or try and “be positive” when all hell is breaking loose, there is no way through whatever challenge we are facing. There must be more than just saying the words. There has to be meaning and purpose to our lives beyond suffering that we strive to achieve, and it must be practical and attainable to feel hopeful. It also means taking good care of ourselves, which can be hard because most of us want to do more for others than we do ourselves and live with guilt for putting ourselves first, so maybe do so with this thought… treat yourself like someone else you are responsible for taking care of.

For those who have read my book (Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey) and/or my articles and blogs, you could make the claim that I am all about positivity. This is only true to an extent so let me clarify; my message is not, “just say and think positive thoughts and everything will be fine.” Not even remotely close, but that is how my message is sometimes perceived and how some people mean it when they talk about “being positive.” As many of you have probably experienced, it doesn’t work long term because that thought alone is essentially meaningless. Other thoughts and a proactive plan that produces favorable results must accompany it.

Without a plan (setting attainable goals and steps to achieve them) attached to “being positive,” for a lot of people it ends up turning into more suffering because they think they have a handle on their situation by only saying the words, “be positive”, because this is what our culture jams down our throat. When the you know what hits the fan, these people fall even harder and hurt more because they feign positivity and avoid confronting their suffering. It can be a dangerous game. Except in certain situations and around certain people, there is no reason to wear a fake smile and pretend that life is nothing but a bowl of cherries if it isn’t, so don’t deny it. Let it be what it is and express your emotions.

Those of us who suffer with anything in life (which basically means everyone if you are alive) need to grieve short and long term life challenges, and with that comes a lot of emotions that may be viewed as negative… but they are all okay to have and healthy to express. In fact, I think it is actually a positive move on our part because expression of true feelings means we are facing our problems honestly. It is more stressful living in a fake world of positivity or a chronic world of negativity, especially when neither is reality.

So instead of “being positive”, be honest, realistic, and proactive. Work hard to accept that things are tough, roll with them, be in a solution-oriented mindset rather than a reactionary one, and if you have moments where you need to scream and yell and cry, by all means do so, but if you live in this place all the time, it will only make suffering worse because it will ramp up your stress hormones.

I like to say, “how do I/we make the best of a difficult situation.” This is a non-reactionary, non-emotional, rational way of recognizing that a tough situation exists and there are ways to make it better if we are open to options, rather than shutting down and giving up and being angry. No amount of anger will take your pain or other symptoms away. Anger only stirs up stress chemicals which make our symptoms worse. As much as you may resist this next thought, we MUST find a way to cohabitate with our pain/problems, no different than anything we don’t like such as the shape of our nose, grey hair, wrinkles, excess weight, or anything else we would prefer not have.

Also critical is to not get too high or too low emotionally, so the way we characterize life events is very important. Be as even keeled as possible. An aroused nervous system cannot heal, which is why we MUST calm our minds. If you want to fight something, fight the desire to give up on yourself during tough times by viewing your obstacle as a challenge to overcome, which will change your mindset and reduce the negative toll REACTIONS to life events have on your health. Life events in and of themselves are not the main problem. It is how we react to them that determines the long term health of our mind and body. If we can control our emotional reaction to pain or other physical ailments, or any other life experience, we can reduce the trauma it has on us. This is how we win the “fight” and when we can say, “I am being positive”, and actually mean it.

Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and author of the book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, a comprehensive resource for anyone suffering with any life challenge. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, and volunteers for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, for WEGO Health as a patient expert panelist, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network. To learn more about Tom and get a copy of his book, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.

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11 responses to “If you’re in pain, don’t “be positive.” Be honest.”

  1. Darla Nagel says:

    Thanks, Tom. Didn’t read the entire post (brain fog, y’know), but I found this was the key: “To me, being positive is a mindset where we acknowledge the struggle and focus on solutions rather than problems; looking at obstacles as challenges to overcome rather than setbacks. It does not mean denying the existence of mental and physical pain.” I’ve said something similar in my soon-to-be published book, Lightening the Shadow: “Being positive doesn’t mean skipping through sunny days with a cheesy grin. To me, it means being skeptical of the future by remembering that life could get better instead of worse, even while having plans in place in case my health declines.”

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Hi Darla. Good luck with your book. I was curious about the quote from it where you said “being skeptical of the future…” Why skeptical? The reason it threw me is because you then said, “life could get better instead of worse…”

  2. Yes, as the saying goes, it’s ok not to be ok sometimes

  3. Karen S says:

    Tom, thank you for this article. I have always put on a smile and tried to be normal. But, it is getting too hard for me to do this. I have also learned that it is okay to say NO. Your article came at the right time. As always, thank you for everything you do for us.

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Thank you Karen. I know what you mean about it being hard to put on that smile. The stress is too much to force something when we don’t feel it. When we are able to express our emotions as they are, it helps others see the real us and hopefully be more understanding. The nature of any chronic condition is such that we don’t know what to expect every day, which means some days are better than others. When people see us on a good day, there is an expectation that we are cured, healed, or getting better. We may very well be getting better, but on those down days people will be confused because most only understand health issues that have an expected time of recovery. With chronic conditions, this isn’t always the case, which we need and want those closest to us to understand. Be you, however you are, with no apologies.

  4. Gayle says:

    I wish you would not use these forums to advertise your personal business. Talking about Dystonia is one thing but attempts to promote your “life coaching ” is in my opinion offensive.

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Thanks for your comment, but I am confused. This is not a forum. This is a personal blog. I am also not promoting a personal business. I am sharing thoughts about a topic that is very hard for people with dystonia and other conditions to deal with. Aside from my bio, which every blog/article should have so the reader knows who the person is behind the words, I am in no way promoting a business. And if I were, why would that be offensive? I can write whatever I want on my personal blog. Thank you.

  5. Tara Skeen says:

    Tom,
    I loved your article. That has been said to me, in one way or another, nearly all my life. I have cerebral palsy, dystonia, and a number of of other neurological conditions. I cannot walk…Tara

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Thank you very much Tara. I am sorry that you have been told this so many times. You would think by now people would understand that the person inside is dying to get out and live like most able bodied people.

  6. Connie says:

    Thank you for this message Tom. Some days are tough…there have been seasons in my life that were nothing short of hellish. I was always taught put a smile on my face and go forward. Thank you for allowing me to be human and admit that “all is not well, all the time.”

    • Tom Seaman says:

      You are so welcome Connie. You have permission anytime to be who you are with no veil, which in many ways is a more graceful way to live.

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