Social worker and breast cancer survivor, Lara Noik, shares her stance on what being positive means.
If I had R100 for each time I was told “Just be positive!” after my diagnosis, I would be a millionaire! Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a positive attitude. It certainly feels a lot better and allows for a more pleasant journey. It also lends itself to a more nurturing and supportive environment, which in itself is helpful. But why the big emphasis on positivity? And what if I don’t feel positive today? Am I doing cancer wrong? Or am I even making it worse?
What does the research say about positivity?
Interestingly, most reputable studies have indicated that maintaining a positive attitude doesn’t actually change the course of a person’s cancer and can’t alter its progression. So, where does all the buzz come from? Maybe having a positive attitude isn’t about living longer, but about living better?
Not so fast. While this may make intuitive sense, the evidence challenges this too. In fact, a positivity focus may at times create an added burden on a patient and place a lot of pressure on an already strained psyche. Denying, avoiding or suppressing distress can be counterproductive and may cause more harm than good.
It may actually be much better if we are encouraged, and encourage others, to express the full range of human emotions. Imagine if, and this may sound drastic, instead of dwelling on positivity, we allow ourselves and others to indulge a little in our shadow side. To play in the mud. To entertain our deepest, darkest thoughts without the fear of being judged or being consumed by them.
Sometimes I have clients who are afraid to cry, because “If I start, then I will never stop.” Tears don’t work that way. Neither does distress. Sometimes allowing these emotions to be expressed isn’t only cathartic but can take away their perceived harmfulness. As the saying goes, “What we resist, persists.”
South African born Harvard psychologist and researcher, Susan David, expounds on this topic, speaking out against what she calls the tyranny of positivity. She suggests that it’s rather “radical acceptance of all our emotions, even the messy, difficult ones, [that] may be the cornerstone to resilience, thriving and true authentic happiness.”
Does being positive really mean putting a smile on your face no matter what? Does it mean negating your feelings, pushing aside fears and being cheerful all day long? Perhaps not.
Maybe it’s time to redefine what a positive attitude means. To me, it’s more nuanced and subtler than at first glance. Perhaps having a positive attitude allows for expression and feeling of all emotions without feeling lost to any of them. Maybe you can be positive without having to feel happy and joyful all the time.
For me, positivity is about allowing for the full ambit of human experience without losing sight of hope and resilience. We can hold onto them even as we allow ourselves to feel anger, despair and fear. This, to me, is true positivity. Not a blind negation of who we are. Not a naïve denial of the gravity of what we are going through. Rather it’s a human experience, encompassing and holding the synthesis of opposites: hope and despair; joy and pain; gratitude and fear.
Entering Rumi’s guesthouse
One of my favourite poems, The Guest House, by 13th-century Persian poet, Jalaluddin al-Rumi, speaks to this concept in a profound manner:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,because each has been sentas a guide from beyond.
There is no cure for fragility, for being human. There doesn’t need to be. And there is no right way to do cancer. Just what’s right for you. So, absolutely, be positive. Be positively human. And even, sometimes, be positively negative.
MEET THE EXPERT – Lara Noik
Lara Noik is a social worker in private practice and a cancer survivor. She has a special interest in the fields of mental health, resilience, and relationship work. She believes in the innate resilience that exists within each human being and spends her time counselling individuals, couples, and groups from this standpoint.
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