If you’re in pain, don’t “be positive.” Be honest.
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 the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.