“Hope is the only positive emotion that requires negativity or uncertainty.” - Dr. Dan Tomasulo

 

Toxic positivity: avoiding difficult emotions

You might be familiar with the terms ‘toxic positivity’ or ‘spiritual bypassing’. These phrases highlight the tendency to avoid difficult emotions and circumstances in the pursuit of only positive feelings. They suggest that positive emotions can only be accessed in the absence of negative emotions, and vice versa.

It's normal to want to sidestep negative feelings. In fact, we are biologically primed to avoid any circumstance we perceive as threatening to our vitality, making difficult experiences and the feelings that come alongside them unpleasant – at times, even unbearable.

How Positive psychology can help us 

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, author, and survivor of three Holocaust concentration camps, wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he details humans' innate strength to harness resilience and hope in the face of adversity. Today, much of Frankl’s philosophy is reflected in the validated science of positive psychology, which centres on nourishing what is inherently strong or ‘right’ within an individual to cope with and/or overcome challenges. This counters a traditional Western approach, which focuses almost exclusively on fixing what is 'wrong' or unsteady for a person. Positive psychology points out that our negative circumstances can serve as a portal of hope and courage as we understand ourselves and our values more deeply – but first, we must choose to see this potentiality in our struggles. 

Shifting your perspective on your challenges

You might be thinking, how am I supposed to function, let alone thrive, amidst a negative circumstance? Hope invites us to a space of possibility and reminds us that we have autonomy in our reactions to adverse situations. To do this, we can focus on shifting our perspective from permanent, pervasive, and unmanageable to temporary, local, and within reach.

Acceptance through impermanence

Applying ‘temporary’ to MS, a chronic disease, may appear impossible. How can we make something that is persistent into something temporary? To start, we can turn to impermanence, which reminds us that nothing is as fixed as we perceive it to be. Accepting a diagnosis is important, and I am by no means encouraging denial; however, there is great value in considering your experience apart from the label of the disease. Rather than working from the mindset, “I have MS, a chronic disease,” you might try on, “Today, I am experiencing brain fog and tingling”. The more specific we get, the more impermanence shines through, allowing for an opportunity to shift our overall relationship to the diagnosis. Of course, some aspects of MS are fixed, and I don’t want to discredit this. However, we may notice there are more possibilities for hope and resilience than initially considered if we can open ourselves to an altered perspective.

How to shift your perspective with MS

To expand on this, consider yourself sitting on a sandy beach, legs stretched forward, with the ocean waves crashing over you. You might notice the texture of the sand, the temperature of the water on your skin, and the crispness of the air as the water recedes. Then, an oceanographer walks by and tells you facts and information about the ocean – how deep the water is, its chemical composition, and current tide patterns. You might be grateful for them and the information shared, and it may even prompt you to join an initiative to protect the ocean; however, your relationship with the ocean will likely have shifted from that initial dynamic and intimate experience of the waves lapping over you to one that is external, intellectual, and definitive.

Similar to MS, we can practice holding valuable knowledge to inform the decisions we make while objectively noticing the peaks and valleys of our experience, just as you would notice a wave drawing in and pulling back. In other words, our understanding of MS doesn’t have to solely belong to the definitions others hold for us; quite the opposite, it is skilful to craft our own ever-changing interpretation of the experience.

Additionally, shifting our perspective of challenging circumstances from pervasive to local will transfer absorbing a lifetime of disease to capturing one day at a time. You might ask yourself, “What can I do today that will positively impact my present and future?” This could include meditating or engaging in physical activity, going for a walk outside, or doing something creative.

Take one step at a time

Rather than figuring out how to scale an entire mountain, we can focus on each step of the journey. Meditation is a beautiful tool we can call upon to train our minds to return to the present moment again and again. With regular meditation practice, our habits (and even the physical structure of our brains) change, allowing the perception of our experience to move from pervasive to local with greater ease.

Recognising your strengths

Finally, we can shift the seemingly unmanageable aspects of our journey to being achievable and within reach. We can nourish the individuality of our experience by allowing our inherent strengths to lead the way. By calling on these innate characteristics in moments of uncertainty, we may notice resources, pathways, and possibilities that would have otherwise been hidden from us. Life experiences or a mindful practice may have already highlighted some of your strengths, making them readily available for application. If you’re unsure of your strengths, consider using a trusted, evidence-based scale like the VIA Character Strengths Survey (free to use).

The more we recognise ourselves as active players in the task at hand, the more we will naturally create positive emotions, including hope. Different from toxic positivity or spiritual bypassing, by noticing how our strengths can positively impact our well-being, we can uncover and appreciate positive emotions that serve to balance the inevitable difficult emotions that come alongside challenging experiences. Research points to positive emotions as a vehicle to widen thoughts and actions as we bolster flexibility, generativity, and resilience.

Accepting all your feelings

Of course, this doesn’t mean that difficult feelings should be repressed, ignored, or avoided. Equanimity allows us to boldly accept and hold our experience exactly as it is – positive, negative, in between, or all the above. With an attitude of self-compassion, non-judgment, and patience, we can learn to embrace the raw reality of our journey, which will undoubtedly lend to enduring efforts in living a more well-balanced and hopeful life.

Ultimately, how we perceive our experiences can significantly impact our relationship with them. By shifting our perspective from permanent, pervasive, and unmanageable to temporary, local, and within reach, we may be able to see the portal of hope and courage within our challenging circumstances more clearly.


To help you start working on shifting your perspective and cultivating hope, Melanie has put together some journal prompts below which you can come back to as regularly as you need. They are also available below as a download:

Journal Prompts

  1. What is one thing you can do today that may positively impact your present and future?
  2. Can you get more specific about that action? and the future goal that it will impact?
  3. Can you foresee a time you may need to be flexible with these actions and/or goals? What resources (internal or external) can you apply to adjust the path and keep moving forward?
  4. What strengths do you possess that may offer resources you hadn’t thought of before?
  5. How can you see the attitudes of self-compassion, non-judgment, and patience as critical to applying the shift in perspective this article presented?

Melanie Lown holds an MA in Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. While at Columbia, she trained in the Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute and was a colleague in the Spirituality and Psychology Research Lab. Before her time at Columbia, Melanie was the Lab Manager for the Imagination and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. She has also studied at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and is a certified meditation teacher.
 

Melanie has MS and follows the Overcoming MS Program. She was a guest in series 5 of our podcast, which you can listen to here.

You can find more about Melanie and her work at melanielown.com.