“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
It goes without saying that for the past couple of years, the holiday season has felt – for lack of a better word, weird.
As much as the holiday season promotes a general sense of merriment and celebrating the bounty and abundance around us, for many the holiday season can bring on uncomfortable feelings – and then guilt for not feeling particularly merry. The truth is, sometimes gratitude is not the best way to navigate our reality.
The last two years have been hard on all of us and we are trying our best to cope. We are dealing with our own issues while simultaneously observing all of the challenges that the pandemic has caused our families, our kids, our neighbors, our employees, our customers and our communities.
Every day, I make a practice of writing down three things I am grateful for in my abundant life. I was taught, and continue to learn, that oftentimes the best way to gain perspective and live a fuller life is to look for and admire the small but powerful things in life: a child’s face, your dog’s loyalty, the sunset through a kitchen window, etc. The little moments that remind us that no matter how crazy the world gets, there will always be something to hold on to.
Under this same spirit, and with good intentions, I have often attempted to help people identify all that they should be grateful for. Recently, I’ve realized that while a positive outlook is very important, it can also evolve into “toxic positivity”, an idea that we’re all familiar with in one way or another.
Toxic positivity is the concept that the solution to life’s challenges and setbacks is simply to remain positive, count your blessings, and replace authentic, albeit uncomfortable, grief with positive thoughts that are much more comfortable. The truth is, sometimes things will really suck – and when they do, we need to feel and process.
When used to dampen our senses to uncomfortable feelings, toxic positivity and an “attitude of gratitude” can prevent us from truly processing the root of the emotions.
The same goes for when you’re providing support to a friend. When someone we care for is going through tough times, our first instinct is often to help them see all of the blessings they have in life. This is helpful, but only at the right time. If you just lost your job and someone tells you to “look on the bright side”, it sucks. People just want to know you’re there and that you care.
As I said, I have a daily gratitude practice. It’s healthy and for me, an important part of my mental health maintenance. But I also take time to reflect on and understand the uncomfortable feelings, too. Pushing positivity on friends and family and employees who are going through tough times is well intended but frankly, can be invalidating and harmful.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
― Maya Angelou
Like most things in life, a balanced perspective is a complete one. The opposite of toxic positivity is Tragic Optimism. The concept of Tragic Optimism comes from Neurologist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Tragic optimism involves finding meaning through reflection and introspection during difficult and trying times. Simply put, it’s the idea that it takes going through hell to truly grow. Processing difficult times in a healthy way can give us insights and perspective – we can find ourselves, respect, compassion, empathy, etc.
These next few weeks you’ll be surrounded by friends, family and strangers that are all going through unique challenges. You may also have challenges of your own to overcome. Starting today, I challenge you to:
1. Listen. When someone is going through hell, resist the temptation to try to change their feelings. Instead, just listen, let them know that their feelings are legitimate, and assure them that you’re there for them.
2. Honor your feelings. Even the uncomfortable ones. You’re allowed to feel less than your best during the holidays. It doesn’t make you any less grateful for all that you do have. Honor the feelings that come up, process them, don’t linger, and get back out there.
3. Practice gratitude. Yes, this step is still important. Never stop working to identify the small moments that make you feel alive.
4. Give back. Over time, I’ve learned that true long term gratitude is not about a daily gratitude practice or striving to maintain a positive outlook, rather, it’s a long term approach to helping others. And there’s no better time than the holidays to explore this idea.
A life well lived is a series of ups and downs – the good and the bad. When we honor and process the “bad stuff” we grow stronger, more resilient, more innovative, and better prepared for the next life event.
I wish you and your family the best this holiday season. And if you’re feeling less than perfect, remember, that’s okay – honor your feelings, the bad ones won’t last.
Until next year,
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