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Authenticity is the New Positivity

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November 06 2019

Posted in: Mind-body-medicine,

Authenticity is the New Positivity.

By Anne Pitman, OICC Yoga Therapist & Care Coordinator.

Much has been written on how to “survive” cancer.  “Fight the good fight”, and “stay positive” are reflex recommendations post-diagnosis, fueled by a culture that enthrones heroes and achievement.  In the midst of a significant shock and quick on the heels of overwhelming treatment information, cancer patients are meant to ignore their fear and think positive.  All. The. Time.

This frantic insistence on accepting only positive feelings and thoughts may work for some, but it leaves many people in it’s wake, feeling as though they are already failing to “win” at cancer.  It can be exhausting to continually deny feelings of fear, sorrow and grief, and to instead have to garner the energy, day after day, to smile and shake it off.  The insistence on only-sunny-thoughts for people who are understandably suffering can only leave them isolated and lonely and strangely divided between a body aching with unspoken fear and a mind determined to be “fine”.

Unintended as it may be, the pressure to remain fiercely upbeat has become yet another stress, and another way to leave the body behind, unrecognized and abandoned. 

Biologically it makes sense for people to have a vast range of emotions and physical responses after a diagnosis of cancer.  Our nervous systems are set up to protect us from danger and a cancer diagnosis is justifiably perceived as a threat to safety and status quo. It makes sense that we respond quickly, as all animals do, by assessing immediate danger and advancing instantaneously into “fight, flight, freeze or fold”.  These primitive (and useful) responses are meant to be swift and temporary.  No amount of positive thinking will change the immediate physical response to the words “you have cancer”.  If the physically held pattern of shock is left unrecognized and unresolved, we can be left a wide range of understandable symptoms: from constant anxiety, insomnia and irritability to listlessness, numbness and detachment.  We can either suppress these reactions with a false positivity.  Or we can work with them directly.

Yoga Therapy, like other body-centered approaches, relies on “bottom-up” processing – listening to the experience and wisdom of the body.  False positivity is experienced as a dense un-feeling layer over natural emotional responses, leaving us unable to hear the body and respond with compassion.

By attending well to the continued sensations and symptoms of shock, by acknowledging the purpose of fight, flight, freeze or fold, by listening fully to someone in distress, we can actually accompany the nervous system, and help them return more fully to their body, the present moment and their agency, with regard to decision making and direction.

The people I see in my office have tried their best to answer the persistent call to positivity and are mostly terrified that they aren’t thinking positively enough.  In our first meeting they assure me that they are only thinking good thoughts (as though, as a Yoga Therapist I would obviously agree of the importance of this attitude).  At some point (usually when I ask them what they are experiencing in their body) they inevitably dissolve into the “negative” and their fears and worries pour forth; the overwhelm and stress of too much information in too short a time, their concerns and resistance to treatment, the worrisome meaning of their diagnosis, the grasping at what could be the cure and their utter belief that they are doing all of this wrong.  They describe their body sensations as a "choking throat", the feeling of "something sitting on their chest", and an "anxious tight belly".  They have been told they have (and often receive prescriptions for) "treatment anxiety", "depressive attitude" and "anticipatory grief".

There simply isn’t room to feel devastated and shattered – not even for a minute.

Often clients are surprised when I receive their “negativity” with ease and acceptance.  When I acknowledge that it makes sense, as a human, living in this place and time, to feel exactly as they do, the relief in the room is palpable. As we talk, as we move and breathe and practice yoga, we bring an un-judgemental awareness to their body, and they are even more surprised that the tension and sensations of fear wash away without effort and they feel naturally “positive” – towards themselves and their experience – but authentically.

What if being positive all the time robs you of something vital and entirely human?

The diagnosis of cancer is a shock, no matter your genetic predisposition or healthy lifestyle.  It is a tornado and the strong gales bring new fears and unearth old ones. What if being positive all the time robs you of something vital and entirely human? Perhaps there is something to be gained by allowing yourself to be undone by life. Maybe, if we could lay down this false positivity long enough to notice how we truly feel, we could come back more fully into our bodies and lives, shaken yes, but seeing more clearly.  We may find that, approaching the body with compassion and a willingness to listen, brings both a physical release and a vast acceptance, a soft strength, and a full body vitality.  Instead of abandoning ourselves, we could just be human, and find, in doing so, that we can move again, breathe again.  It may be that cultivating authenticity allows us to be ourselves, and more so, as we continue the necessary and uncertain walk with cancer.  Perhaps our willingness to do so gives tacit and gracious permission to those that follow us on that path.


Cheryl Shore said:

Having been fortunate to participate in Yoga Therapy with you I have realized this and am careful to accept feelings other than the positivity that I feel. Thank you Anne, CShore :)

Sylvie Dagenais-Douville said:

Good morning Anne. I always enjoy reading your blog and feel very fortunate to have met you. It is very interesting to see how even now that I am in Montreal our paths are crossing again. I have the privilege of having Candice Labbé has a yoga teacher and plan on getting involve with Vivacia. I am still promoting with passion Laughter-Wellness through Laughter Yoga and always make sure that the participants understand that Laughter Wellness is knowing a way "out" of our support us in a spiral up. I always encourage them to acknowledge other emotions , with out trying to put a label of "good" or " bad" emotions. All emotions need to be welcome and accepted. This goes beyond positive thinking (that can be highly irritating ) and fits into Positive Psychology of focusing on gratitude. Have an awesome day and many thanks for sharing your wisdom. Sylvie :)

Faye Pennell said:

Anne - Thank you for this important message. I have shared it with a few of my friends and it has provoked meaningful conversations for us. I had been struggling with finding a way to express so many other difficult emotions that don't include "positivity", without feeling like I was letting myself or other folks down. So much of "positivity" keeps me in my head and as I continue in my chapter with cancer, I realize that listening to my heart allows the pain of it all to move through me more easily - not get ignored while I desperately try to "stay positive". You have articulated so well the complexity of emotions that occur with a cancer diagnosis and reading these words inspires me to keep my feelings real and listen to what's really going on inside and not just to the voice in my head that says "happy thoughts, happy thoughts". I am moving from thinking that being positive is going to help me heal to believing that being authentic is going to help me heal. Thank you for being there for all of us.

Angela Gentile said:

Very well said. I was often given the advice to "stay positive." It was hard to do at times, and I felt I couldn't be negative, in spite of the fears and difficulties. It's better to be authentic and to honour the feelings, no matter what they are.

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