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How to Be Positive When Life is Miserable
Life happens to all of us. It gets hard. It challenges us. It pushes us and it fights with us. It demands a lot and sometimes those demands just pile up. We get mad, sad, and scared. Did I mentioned tired? Life can exhaust us and overwhelm us in one fell swoop, if we let it.
It’s tempting to turn the dissatisfaction we’re experiencing in an important relationship into a unilateral view that every relationship is hard and that no one ever says what they mean or means what they say anymore. Our lens will shift and we will notice every slight, every time someone didn’t show up when they said they would or were inconsistent. We’ll pounce on those inconsistencies as proof that people can’t be trusted.
It’s easy to be drawn into that negativity, like moths to a flame.
I sometimes get caught in the trap of calling out these people for playing the victim, for choosing to lay down when they could stand up.
It’s just not that simple. Sure, some people stay down because they like it there. It’s easier. It’s safer. However, some people stay down because they believe that the only way for their pain and struggle to be validated is if they stay knocked down by it.
Getting back up somehow implies that it’s ok and not that big of a deal that a loved one passed away, that they didn’t get the promotion, or that their child is facing a hardship. They don’t want to give the hardship permission to have happened so they stay broken by it.
These people don’t choose to be negative or pessimistic. They just haven’t learned how to be positive while acknowledging the pain and hardship they’re facing.
Step One is learning to hold both.
I’m a clinically trained social worker. One of my first lessons in graduate school was that our job as clinicians was to help people learn how to hold both the good and the pain in their lives. If someone just ignored the pain and only focused on the good, they were in denial and at risk of really getting socked by life because they’d never see it coming. Likewise, if people only hold on to the pain and the darkness, they never learn to let the light in and they become dangerously susceptible to depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Our challenge, as my professor put it, was to help the child love the mother who would read him bedtime stories and sing lullabies while also being angry at the same mother who slapped him across the face in a momentary fit of anger and loss of patience. It’s all about holding both.
Choosing to be positive in the face of adversity is not about denying or minimizing pain.
In order to sustain positivity, it’s important that you get clear, organized, and honest about what you’re living with and experiencing. If you’re living with chronic pain, for example, you’re not being authentic if you never give time, energy, or respect to that pain. You have to acknowledge it, make room for it, and take care of it. Unacknowledged pain will just fester and become a bigger challenge if not addressed or treated.
The same is true for emotional pains and stressors. You have to acknowledge them and get clear on what you’re managing. Part of being authentic and honestly positive is about acknowledging the hardships and taking care of them as best as you can.
There’s power in the word “and.”
So many people are not only resistant to the idea of being positive during hard times. They’re downright offended by the notion.
They think that seeing positives is minimizing pain and experiences. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It can be true that you’re living with a devastating loss or disappointment and it can be equally true that you are forging a closer relationship with someone for having gone through that loss and sharing that experience with them.
One simply does not discount the other.
If you want to be positive, you have to go looking for it.
If you want to get through this rough patch, it’s important that you acknowledge your painful truth and reality while also tuning in to your capabilities.
You want to acknowledge the experience, strength, and talents you have that will get you through this. You want to be aware of the people who are showing up and you want to acknowledge the things that are going your way. Any moment of respite counts.
A friend recently called it “seeing the yellow flower in the sidewalk.” You can walk down a sidewalk and see the cracks or you can walk down that same sidewalk and admire the perseverance of the dandelion that made it through the crack in the sidewalk.
If you want to be positive, you have to wear a different lens and actively go looking for the moments of light. This isn’t about wearing rose-colored glasses and making stuff up to puff up about. Look for the positives. Seek them out. Be mindful of the good you are seeing, experiencing, and receiving. When times are tough, you might collect every stressor, every irritant, and every ounce of effort. If you’re going to do that with the challenging things, you definitely have to do that with the positive gifts, too.
You have to look for the yellow flower in the crack of the sidewalk.
Don’t define yourself by your hardship.
My mom passed away when I was six years old and for many, many years that was my identity. As a kid, I quickly learned that my mom dying got me a lot of attention with other kids. Teachers would give me a break in terms of expectations placed on me.
At some point, I discovered the book Motherless Daughters and suddenly I had a name to go with my pain. I waved it like a flag and wore it like some badge of honor. I was a motherless daughter. It defined me and anyone who met me quickly learned that about me.
Looking back, it was no surprise that I hit a spell of depression as a teen and young adult. The only way I’d learned to define myself was by the fact that my mom had died when I was young.
I literally lost years of my life making that mistake.
There’s no such thing as skipping the fact that my mom died when I was young. It’s a part of my story but it isn’t my whole story. It isn’t all of me. The same is true with whatever you are facing or living with right now—no matter how big, no matter how scary, this hard time does not define you. It’s important that you look at your entire life and recognize your talents, gifts, important relationships, and abilities.
Prioritize the company you keep.
A motivational speaker, Jim Rohm, is credited with the idea that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. We absorb their attitudes, their beliefs, and their perspectives. If you’re choosing to be positive, whenever you have the choice of who you spend time with, you have to choose people who inspire you, motivate you, and have a similar outlook to the one you’re trying to have.
This obviously won’t be in your control all of the time. If you’re at work and the person next to you is always miserable and complaining, you can’t help that but you can choose who you spend lunch with. You can choose who you spend your free time with. You can learn to say no to people who drain you of energy or who are negative and pessimistic.
When the choice is yours, you can choose to surround yourself with people who make you bigger and better, not bitter and smaller.
Prioritize the entertainment you seek.
Take Rohm’s idea one step further and think of yourself as the average of the top 5 things you spend your time on. Obviously, time is going to be sucked up by less enjoyable things.
Closely examine though, how you’re spending your free time, no matter how limited it is, and see if it is helping you be positive. Are you listening to music that builds you up, makes you feel better, or helps you dispel angry, negative energy? Are you watching television shows or reading books with any kind of inspiring messages, humor, or moments of light?
What do your social media feeds look like? That little arrow in the top right hand corner of Facebook posts can be your new best friend as you start to unfollow people who waste time raging about stupid, petty things.
If you’re looking to be positive, you have to spend your time absorbing positive messages and consuming things that genuinely entertain you.
You don’t have to “Kumbaya” your way through life but if every show you’re binging on involves darkness, death, or pessimism, you might want to re-order your Netflix queue.
Do you have any hobbies or activities that you enjoy doing? Have you let them go in favor of numbing out to one of the many screens in your life? Spending time on things you love will give you positive energy. Spending time on things that help you numb out may give you respite but offer little else in way of helping you be positive.
It might be time to get moving.
It’s natural to feel knocked down and to slow down when life hits us with its crushing weight. It’s important that you rest and that you nurture the hurts.
However, it is also equally important that you get moving as much as you’re physically able to. If you have a favorite gym or physical activity, don’t stop doing it unless you’re physically limited in your ability to do it. You might need to pound out frustration by taking the stairs. You might have an easier time getting out of your head if you get outside.
Hard times create energy inside us. It’s important to release that energy before it consumes you. Work out. Get moving. Give the stress and strain of your daily life somewhere to go other than lying dormant within you.
Feelings are just energy and you can control how you move them.
Whether we are sad, mad, scared, elated, frustrated, giddy, excited, or overwhelmed, those feelings are inside of us and they create energy. We can’t control our feelings but we have total control over what we choose to do with the energy those feelings create.
We can be mad as hell and choose to use that energy to tackle a challenge or an obstacle that we never thought we could achieve. We could be stressed with financial strain and decide to perform 5 random acts of kindness for strangers. We can take our anxiety and channel it by playing on a playground with a kid in our lives. We can sing at the top of our lungs. We can find the humor in the situation and laugh it out.
No one is telling you that you have to be positive given whatever you’re managing. That’s up to you. Positivity is a choice.
You can’t control what happens to you but you can decide who you are going to be despite what is happening to you.