Updated: Mar 1, 2021
"...Pour some sugar on me...."
-Def Leppard. 1987
Okay, let’s talk about positivity for a sticky sweet minute, here. I have struggled with the paradox of being a “positive person” for several decades. People have, mostly, regarded me as someone who looked for the good stuff wherever possible and that is probably a fair observation. The problem is, I could never understand why, despite my relatively positive outward viewpoint, I never really felt particularly happy or whole on the inside. I mean, it’s only in the last few years that I have finally come to realize how many hang ups I have around what it is to be a “positive” person… I really DO! Nowadays I view my “positivity” as something that actually held me back in a lot of ways for many years. This may surprise you, considering the fact that I am creating a space here where I am inviting you to come with me on my journey toward illumination during the darkest time in my life! If you’re confused, I get that, friend. Stick with me and allow me to explain it a little….
So, I grew up in a home where there were a lot of things happening that, in this day and age, are considered rather uncool. I don’t think that is particularly unique. Many of us who were raised in the 70’s and 80’s were brought up in homes where kids got spanked and shamed and told to be quiet and small or go on a diet at age 10. Homes where the Dads didn’t really show up for their kids beyond paying the mortgage and putting food on the table. (And let’s be honest, they didn’t actually lift a finger to literally put food on a table! That was the Mom’s job. Every meal, every time, always. Lucky her!). Of course, there were other merits to being raised in that era… running free on the caul-de-sac until dark, no “helicopter parenting” and nobody reading the labels on packaged foods! In that regard, it was a joyful time, too! #doritosandrootbeeranyone?
Anyhow, like most families, my mom was in charge of the home and in our home there were a fair amount of…ummm… shadows. Because my mom prided herself on being a “positive” person, she seemed pretty uncomfortable with anyone feeling anything other than sunny and bright despite (and because of) those shadows. After all, to acknowledge the darkness would mean that what was happening in those shadows may actually be real. That would NEVER do. Consequently, I felt expected to follow suit and put on a happy face, regardless of what was going on. Because of this model, I never really allowed myself to explore the idea that sadness and fear and joy and happiness could all live inside me and that the full complement of emotions were, in fact, what would make me a whole person.
(Disney Pixar could have saved me a world of hurt if they had JUST made “Inside Out” in 1983! )
Yes, it felt better to both my parents if we all just put a smile on and ignored the shadows in the name of being the picture of a perfect family. My mom would often suggest we
“just make these lemons into lemonade!" Appreciating the lemons themselves before diluting the sour juice and adding sugar to balance the tartness was not part of the plan. We were going straight to lemonade, folks. Then maybe we could forget about those lemons altogether.
So even at a very young age, I naturally had all these big normal feelings but only the happiest ones - joy, happiness and delight - were welcome to be felt and shared… Now THAT would have been a different Disney movie altogether! Just “Joy” living all alone…no Sadness or Anger or Disgust for companionship…just having to hype herself up all the time like a cartoon version of “Bridget Jones’s Diary”…exhausting…poor Joy…)
Because of this parental modelling and my natural disposition, which is kinda just hardwired for positivity, I struggled for decades anytime I had feelings of discontent, anger, fear, depression or sadness. It was already crippling to have these emotions rise up and then I felt bad about myself too. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just bypass these responses with ease. What a total emotional shit show! Enter my love of numbing all unwanted feelings with alcohol, sugar, shopping and other distractions! It was literally toxic. It was toxic positivity.
When I lived abroad and experienced homesickness and depression that erupted in an unusual skin condition, I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge the stress and explore that connection between my mind and body! When I had fertility challenges, I expected myself to bypass my feelings of disappointment, jealousy and lack and just “think positive thoughts!”. When my beautiful baby was born with a brain injury I expected myself to “just be grateful he’s here!” (and maybe relax and drink some wine about it!) It is crazy to me to look back on these monumental life experiences and see how I expected myself to only allow a fraction of the feelings rise to the surface and be processed. No wonder I was confused by myself. It’s like thinking you can go for a swim to get some exercise without getting just a little cold and wet. It’s only living PART of the experience and the repression will almost always manifest in addiction or dis-ease.
I have spent the last few years really digging into this topic with myself and, through my sobriety, really acknowledging ALL the feelings that go along with hard shit that I have lived through. I have done a lot of backtracking, mourned many losses and come to realize that in order to feel truly whole-hearted it is critical to allow all the emotions to live alongside each other. This is how we can find harmony and balance. In fact, in my experience, happiness and joy cannot even be recognized without the contrast of sadness or anger or fear. Am I ever glad I took the time to figure this out…and if you want to save yourself the agony of therapy on this topic, seriously, do yourself a favour and watch “Inside Out”!
You’ll get it right away!
(Insert another gratuitous 80's song quote!)
"Joy...and pain. Sunshine...and rain."
-Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock
It’s never been more important for me to live by this and model it to my kids as we navigate our loss of Darcy. To not acknowledge the shadows would literally mean we had to pretend that he wasn’t gone! That would be ridiculous, untrue and it wouldn't get us one step closer to acceptance and healing. On the other hand, to spend all our time in a mud puddle of tears doesn’t feel good either… so we let ALL the emotions play nicely together in the sandbox and we find that they naturally take their turns. We are finding that the many dark moments simply serve to amplify the pockets of light and happiness that we find in our day. We are doing our best to feel it all.
I love that my mom inspired me to reach for the light and “stay positive” – it shaped me in many ways and I certainly appreciate and understand her best intentions. These days, I associate my past positivity with not viewing the whole big picture and not welcoming all the feels...
Lately, I prefer to think of myself as an “optimist” - someone who recognizes the multiple emotions that ride together in any human experience and still chooses to land in the light, as often as possible, without judging herself for spending some time in the shadows too.
I am no longer one to bypass the lemons and head straight for the lemonade. It’s empty calories, y’all. The learning is in the lemons. Once you’ve allowed yourself to peel back the bitter protective skin and dared yourself to take a taste of the pure sour juice… THEN add some sugar, balance the acidity and turn that thing into a sweet, sweet mocktail! Cheers!
Til next time,
Heal and be healed.