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Healing is Found in an Attitude of Gratitude and Not Toxic Positivity

Published on March 20, 2020 8:15 AM EST
Healing is Found in an Attitude of Gratitude and Not Toxic Positivity

Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses while blindly being positive is not the same as having an attitude of gratitude, which can help you find healing. 

I was overly optimistic as a child, while my sister was much more pessimistic. When we would fight, she would say that “we all can’t see the world through rose-colored glasses.”

Healing is Found in an Attitude of Gratitude and Not Toxic Positivity

My coping mechanism as a childhood trauma victim was to always think of some way it could be worse, while hers was to prepare for that very thing to happen.

I credit my optimistic nature as one of the reasons I was able to thrive, despite being abandoned by our parents. Nearly failing kindergarten was only one repercussion of my mother’s neglect. Life with my grandma was so much better, but as I got older, she became physically and emotionally abusive.

But hey, at least there was water in the glass, right? It could have been worse, and my grandma reminded me of that frequently: at least I got to go to Disney and wasn’t living with strangers.

What is toxic positivity?

I’ve recently learned that there were some serious flaws with my method. I exuded positivity like a battle unicorn throwing rose bombs at problems, hoping to mask the severity of what was happening. After decades of handling life like this, I realized that I was struggling to feel empathy for difficulties that other people were going through.

My first reaction was to point out how this could be even worse for them, even saying things like you should be grateful that “this” didn’t happen instead. I’ve been guilty of giving the worst advice on the planet: “Keep smiling, and something better will come along. You have to think positively.”

According to Noel McDermott:

We can’t select which emotions we’re going to have. If we try to get rid of one set of emotions, we’ll get rid of them all and become numb to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. If you try to get rid of negative emotions, you damage your whole internal world. 

It has taken me nearly 30 years to understand this, and now I am trying to relearn behaviors that served their purpose and made sure I survived. I can no longer deny the fact that I grew up without my father. Or that my mother was an addict that couldn’t take care of her children. Or that my narcissistic grandmother was emotionally and physically abusive. And that every single one of these instances made me feel something other than positive.

I am not “lucky” that I “only suffer from cPTSD” and not substance abuse. I am not happy that I was never beat to the point of broken bones or hospital visits. I am not glad that I didn’t wind up on the streets as a child, as that doesn’t justify the way my grandmother treated me. The toys and vacations we went on do not appease me if that means that I should ignore the emotional anguish I experienced. What I am, instead of all of these states of being, is resilient.

“Better wellbeing should not focus only on being happy because it denies resilience-building experiences.” – Noel McDermott, Clinical Psychotherapist 

Gratitude builds resiliency

Robert Emmons, an expert on how gratitude can impact both mental and physical health, states that:

Gratitude builds resilience: Some people experience profound life losses yet find themselves capable of moving forward and finding happiness again. They find the people and passions in their lives that make them happy and focus on them. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for, even during the worst times of your life, fosters resilience.

Have you noticed that when something is going “wrong,” it seems to require all of your attention? Let’s say you lose your job. You might spend your time reading articles about how to write a better resume, work on learning a new skill for a job you want to apply for, or spend your day applying for jobs.

Your focus is on doing what you can physically do to resolve the problem. Negative situations get a lot of attention in our brains because they typically mean we will do something about it. 

Now let’s say you have been working somewhere for years and life is good. There is no extra effort needed on your part to keep living a pretty good life. Wake up, go to work, come home, hang out with the family, rinse, and repeat.

We begin to take these things for granted instead of doing something to remind us that even emotions like satisfaction and happiness require effort. Managing these emotions will help you build up your reserve of inner strength and increase the resilience needed to handle emotionally trying times.

How is having gratitude different than toxic positivity? 

That can be challenging to discern, and I still struggle sometimes. Here is an example of what I think the differences are:

My mom died when I was 18, after only living with her for four months.

I controlled the grief by saying, “Well, it could have been worse, she could have died before I spent any time with her. That would hurt worse, so I won’t let this hurt at all. I am only going to have positive thoughts; maybe there is reason I don’t understand yet about why she had to die.”

I remember sobbing one day after she died about how I didn’t understand why this would happen to me; my positive mindset seemed to have left me. A well-meaning friend responded with, “Well, somethings, we just don’t understand until we get to heaven., but there has to be a reason this happened.”

Part of me tried to acknowledge that I was devastated and enduring more sadness than I ever had before, but I pushed it back with thoughts about how it could have been worse. 

That same scenario would have looked a little differently had I looked at it with an attitude of gratitude. I needed to acknowledge the sadness and permit myself to feel grief. The truth was that my mom’s death permanently ended my quest to reunite with her, in a way that her drug addiction, jail times, and recklessness never could.

For the first time in my young life, I was devoid of hope. For someone with rose-colored glasses firmly planted on my face, I was struggling to see anything but black. 

Gratitude would have reminded me that I was thankful for a support system to help me heal. I could have appreciated the fact that I had gotten some closure on questions I had wondered about for a lifetime.

There were many reasons to be grateful back then, but I didn’t focus on those. With age and a lot of therapy, I have learned that having a positive attitude that stems from thankfulness is a much better way to build resiliency and healing.

How does gratitude help you heal?

According to Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, a psychiatric counselor:

By reducing the stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain site responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence.

Simply, this means that by actively practicing gratitude, we can rewire the way our brains react to stressful and painful situations. We can become more resilient for when life throws the worst possible things at us.

Tips for practicing gratitude

1. Keep a gratitude journal! Your journal should be uniquely yours and encompass any number of things that make you feel thankful. Do you have a favorite food? Is there someone in your life that you want to tell how much you appreciate them? Think of someone that you don’t necessarily fancy and write down one thing they do that you like about them. Write down a natural element that you are thankful you have the opportunity to experience.

2. Pick one day a week where you don’t complain about anything! Think this one sounds easy? Sure, you might be able to not complain about the big things pretty easily, but what happens when you hit all the red lights? Or when you stub your toe on a toy, the kids didn’t pick up?

3. Embrace challenges and turn them into opportunities to grow! Have you lost your job? Instead of saying, well, it could have been worse, at least I didn’t cut my hand off too! Think about it as an opportunity to pursue a job you have always wanted to try. Or maybe it’s time to go back to school? How can you turn this loss into an opening to grow into your best self?

Healing is a journey

Wherever you are at in your quest for healing, I hope you found this valuable. Exercising gratitude is not an easy task, and you should be proud of yourself for trying. 

“Being grateful all the time isn’t easy. But it’s when you feel least thankful that you are most in need of what gratitude can give you: perspective. Gratitude can transform any situation. It alters your vibration, moving you from negative energy to positive. It’s the quickest, easiest, most powerful way to effect change in your life – this I know for sure.” ― Oprah Winfrey

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