New columnist and Australian pioneer of the practice of mindfulness, Charlotte Thaarup, discusses the dark side of positive psychology. Does it sabotage our happiness?
According to US president Donald Trump’s niece, he was raised by a father who was inspired by Peales’ Positive Thinking so much so that he refused to have negative or painful emotions or occurrences in the house.
I wonder how Donald Trump’s mother felt when she returned home from hospital to find that her pain would not be acknowledged.
I wonder how much denial of pain in the home has affected Donald Trump?
There is a place for positive psychology. It is healthy to be aware of strengths.
Positive psychology is a reaction to traditional psychology, which had followed the medical model of pathology, with a focus on fixing what is wrong. It reminds us to see the positives and dial down our tendency to complain and see the negatives and problems.
But there is a dark side to positive psychology.
Have we become slaves to positive psychology – denying what ‘is’? Finding it difficult and shameful when we don’t feel good?
Social media is full of our glory moments, my own included. This makes it harder to admit to feeling sad, jaded, frustrated, angry and jealous. We see these states as failures.
After all, we should be grateful. After all, many are much worse off than we are.
When we deny the difficult, painful, and sad we lose compassion that arises out of being with pain, both in ourselves and others. Suppressing or denying how we feel generates anxiety as there is a lack of congruence within ourselves.
It leads to confusion, a sense of disconnect as we end up not knowing how we feel. To use an overused word, we are no longer authentic.
We have all distracted a child who has hurt themselves. Using a lolly to soothe the pain of a grazed knee works better if we first kiss the wound, recognising the pain first.
Recognising pain is also essential for intimacy, as we cannot have good connection without truth and honesty. Pain, jealousy, anger, and sadness are all part of life’s experience.
Nowadays, we link positive emotions with success and negative emotions with failure. We suppress the painful and pretend to ourselves and others that we are fine. Until we really are not fine.
Life is wonderful and amazing, and it is painful. Our heart needs to acknowledge pain for it to flourish, our systems need to acknowledge pain to become compassionate.
We all want to believe in fairy tale endings, and it is true that there is nothing so bad that isn’t good for something. That doesn’t mean the positive negates the difficult.
The poem Adrift by Mark Nepo starts with: “Everything is beautiful, and I am so sad. This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.”
What is your relationship with pain, with sorrow and sadness, with anger?
Do you feel shame when they visit? Or can you embrace them as temporary visitors that bring life lessons and a path to real happiness?
*Charlotte Thaarup is also contributing to the University of Newcastle’s new Executive Master of Business Administration (MBA) with modules on Mindful Leadership.