Positivity At All Costs Has A Cost

18 Feb


OK, Cancer is a gloomy subject — there’s no pretending it’s not. But often, our instinct is to over-emphasize the proverbial “silver lining.” Positive thinking at its best is an expression of hope in hard times. And while positivity itself is not a bad thing — it’s certainly more enjoyable than fixating on the negative — it can be problematic if it distorts the reality of what someone’s going through.

Americans like to think of themselves as “positive” people. Our culture is steeped in positive thinking — from self-help books to Harvard courses to the ubiquitous mention of the American Dream. After all, there is no dislike button on Facebook. But for a cancer patient, being bombarded with wild optimism for its own sake can sometimes achieve the opposite of its intended effect.

When I was first diagnosed, my close friends and family tried to put on a brave face, but instead of making me feel better, it sometimes made me feel more alone: was I the only person who felt scared, confused, and angry? I had cancer — why did everyone insist upon avoiding the topic?

Barbara Ehrenreich explores the negative effects of positive thinking in her recent book Bright-Sided. “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles,” she writes, “both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.” Ehrenreich isn’t against lightness or laughter, but instead, she urges us to consider how positivity and denial can go hand in hand.

While our instinct can be to immediately steer conversations with cancer patients towards the cheerful, it’s critical for someone who is sick to feel comfortable venting feelings of fear, sadness, anger, loss, and isolation. Being honest about how a life-threatening illness can make you feel — both as a caregiver and the one being cared for — helps get rid of the elephant in the room by acknowledging its presence. One of the most important things you can do for a friend with cancer is to be an equal opportunity listener. Make it clear that you are willing to listen to both the good and the bad.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


12 Responses to “Positivity At All Costs Has A Cost”

  1. Susan Ayari February 19, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    My parents died when I was young. My mother when I was ten, from cancer, and my father when I was sixteen, from a massive coronary. Dealing with death is the same as dealing with some with a dreaded disease. People find it uncomfortable, they can’t put themselves in your shoes, it’s frightening, and so conversations steer away from the unhappiness to avoid it rather than into it to cope with it. Back in 1963 when my mother died, no one talked about cancer. We had no idea what was wrong with her, but neither did she. It was the secret my father held with the doctors. That made coping with her death even more difficult – we weren’t at all prepared for that scenario. Imagine, that was 47 years ago. Here I am at 57 and all those feelings of loss and sadness flow back as if it were yesterday. I wish that there had been someone who could have guided me and my sisters through the journey of her illness and eventual death with honesty and without fear.

    Thank you, Susu, for this post.

  2. AJ February 19, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    yes. there’s a difference between hope that’s grounded in reality and positivity for the sake of positivity. being overly positive for no reason is fake. and people who are ill need that the least. The connection to the American Dream rings true. It’s great to hope but the world also needs real changing. problems need people to solve them. injustice needs answering. positivity isn’t the right response to every problem. we won’t dream up utopia. but we ought to help each other in real ways if we want to get “there.”

  3. John Conlin February 19, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    Hi Suleika,

    My wife continues to do well… hope the same for you. You and I both know the statistics… if you aren’t afraid then you’re not paying attention… nothing to be ashamed of or to try to hide. You’re in a tough position… but there is light at the end of the tunnel, just got to get there… and there is ALWAYS a bright side 😉

    We are both cheering for you,


  4. mlissabeth February 19, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    This is spot on. I would have liked to talk to more people about the bad as well as the good when I was going through treatment. Also, the bad doesn’t end with the end of treatment. That needs to be acknowledged, too.

  5. Anne February 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Sometimes, acknowledging the fears brought on by a serious disease is overwhelming, even for caretakers. We think that we protect the person who is dealing with the disease from our worries, but we are protecting ourselves as well.
    I know that as a caretaker, I have often wanted to protect myself from friends’ expressed concerns, especially after the initial diagnosis, because it can be overwhelming and remind me of how scared I am at times. At the same time their expression of friendship is of course invaluable. But I just cant’ face the echoing of my feelings on certain days. When I don’t want to talk about “it”, I noticed that I unwittingly give out very strong clues by being overly cheerful and talking about the weather. But when I would like to talk about my true feelings, I find it more difficult to give the right clue, as I am afraid to burden other people.
    As caretakers, it is not always easy to know what is needed from us emotionally on a specific day by the person who is sick. Sometimes, staying grounded in everyday positive tasks and talks can be reassuring, but it can be perceived as a lack of sensitivity to what the other goes through. Sharing worries and concerns when the person who is sick needs a breathing day away from all of it would not be constructive either.
    We have come a long way from the secrecy about cancer, when even and especially the patient was not informed of befell them, but was certainly aware that something was wrong and must have felt incredibly lonely with this unshared knowledge. But it does feel at times difficult to truly discuss feelings openly, especially as a parent whose first instinct is to protect their child. If I express my worries, won’t I add to my child’s confusion or sadness? Sensitive support is a delicate balance to achieve. But you are right, Suleika, listening for cues is the best way.

    • Nicolette & Maurice February 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Anne: thanks for sharing your feelings too. Perhaps, you need your own parent or caregiver blog. It must be hard and so confusing, I can truly understand. N

  6. Sylvie Degiez February 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    A single person is the center of a complex network of relationships. The positioning and perspective of each person in that network is entirely different from anybody else. It is impossible for anyone to be entirely sensitive on how to act and what to do. Should I be there or not, is my advice welcome, would someone confide in me, can i confide in that person. Nobody knows for sure. It is why forgiveness is a key to any relationship. People can be angry and express frustration, as long as forgiveness is here, communication can continue to exist. But when survival is at stake, there may be a good reason to remove unwanted influences. You only can be the judge. Positive thinking or negative thinking are both useless, only objective observation makes sense. You are free to express whatever you wish to others, you are forgiven in advance because we know that unless we share the same experience, it is unfathomable. The love around you is unconditional and you should not be afraid to express even your resentment: you are teaching us.
    You look gracefully beautiful on the pictures, I love you Suleika, you are always in my heart and prayers.

  7. Candida Abrahamson PhD February 22, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    Thank you for your insightful post, and to the reference to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book. I find this a fascinating topic, and just did research on a related subject–expression of anger and its relationship to cancer (http://wp.me/p22afJ-Ch). You’re quite right–sometimes we’re positive, cheery, and polite at the expense of our own health.

  8. Callie March 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    So true!!

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