04/28/2016 03:39 EDT | Updated 04/29/2017 05:12 EDT

Positive Thinking Isn't Always The Answer When Life Sucks

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Young woman holding a placard reflecting her feelings

"Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow." - Helen Keller

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? But what about the stuff in the shadows? There's often some real shit going on in there, and it's worth checking it out.

I remember years ago when I worked for a large telecommunications company, we attended a sales training that introduced many principles that were new to us. The one that stuck the most was "Choose Your Attitude" -- only, it stuck for the wrong reasons.

From that day forward, everyone said it with a healthy dose of sarcasm and a fake, plastic smile plastered across their face. It became the running joke -- it really meant that we would choose to be in denial, and pretend that things were OK even when they weren't. Rather than empowering us, this message left us feeling invisible and alienated.

It would seem that although choosing your attitude sounds like it would keep spirits high, it achieved quite the opposite and taught us that our feelings didn't matter, our feedback was unwelcome, and it was best to simply suck it up. Talk about an attempt at positive thinking gone awry.

Don't get me wrong -- there's certainly merit in seeing the blessings in the chaos, or connecting with a sense of gratitude. Neuroscience is showing us that we have the power to rewire our brains to think differently, and that's a very promising and wonderful thing. However, the "just think positively" approach misses a few steps -- it's a little more complex than that.

When we practice positive thinking in a vacuum, we suppress real emotion and prevent ourselves from feeling our true feelings.

It's particularly unhelpful to use positive thinking as a Band-Aid to avoid looking at your wounds. You only end up suppressing your true feelings while you wear a fake plastic smile, like my old co-workers and me.

When we practice positive thinking in a vacuum, we suppress real emotion and prevent ourselves from feeling our true feelings. We lose the opportunity to give each other empathy and, when appropriate, find solutions that make our lives better. Because let's be honest -- sometimes things need to change.

I believe in taking a closer look. We should be honest about our feelings. Despite believing this, I too fall into the habit of positivity-washing my experience when I'm telling others about something crappy that I'm going through.

Part of me thinks I'd better tell them that I'm looking at it in a positive way so that they don't feel bad on my behalf, or worse yet, feel pressured to make me feel better.

We do it to each other, too. How many times have you been told to look on the bright side instead of someone saying they get it, and they're sorry to hear about your struggle? It's natural to collect social habits over your lifetime that are intended to help us all get along. Upon closer examination, many of them fail us as individuals and as a society.

Monica Lewinsky has a brilliant TED talk about opportunities for empathy and how they bring us closer. By choosing to simply think positively, we're erasing the opportunity to connect with others on a closer level -- one that is ultimately very fulfilling.

In a time when a sense of community is hard to come by and true connection with other people can sometimes feel like a rare thing, I believe that it's important to acknowledge when things are shitty. Now, I'm not advocating just sitting in the junk and not doing anything about it -- oh no.

This is simply a reminder that there's a vast field of possibility between just complaining about our circumstances and choosing to think positively about it. In truth, this field is where the magic happens.

It's more comfortable to deny that we're feeling sad or angry about something and insist that we can see the positive side. What's more challenging -- and way more fulfilling, I would offer -- is being honest with ourselves and trusted friends about our struggles, feeling and acknowledging our emotions, allowing ourselves to be seen when we're standing in a rough place, and developing the capacity to be present with others when they're going through a hard time.

The magic then occurs organically. When we feel our feelings, acknowledge and perhaps share them, they loosen their grip on us -- the fog lifts. We begin to feel more naturally hopeful about our prospects, and we can start to explore relevant solutions.

When we repeat a positive thought to ourselves before we're ready, we're really just lying to ourselves. It's totally inauthentic, and inauthenticity eats away at our self-esteem. We're denying our humanity, shutting ourselves off from our wholeness, severing our ties to the richness of life.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that we we would look for a Band-Aid instead of really examining and working through our wounds. I mean, it hurts, right? Who wants that?

People who want to grow, that's who. Sheltering ourselves from the truth (and therefore never doing the internal work that can help us to integrate our difficult chapters) keeps us stuck right where we are.

It's totally possible to emerge with a positive outlook, but just deciding to do it? Doesn't work. Not really.

Sometimes things suck. Please don't force yourself to think positively about it. Feel what you feel. Give yourself space. Embrace vulnerability with people you trust (or in your journal), and enjoy the natural sun after the storm.

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