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Do I need to stay positive all the time?

As a group facilitator for people living with cancer, I often hear people talking about how they "must stay positive”. Everyone from their oncologist to their friends and family want them to ‘stay positive’ too.

A beautiful participant once told me that her mother responded to her wanting to talk about her fear of dying by saying “now, now we don’t want to hear any of that negative talk dear”... and then left the room to make a cup of tea. Many of her friends were reacting in similar ways.

To be fair, her Mum was probably terrified of losing her daughter and may have learned to cope with life’s difficult emotions by putting her head in the sand or she may hold a common, but incorrect, belief that feeling ‘negative’ makes things worse. Some people even think that if you talk about death, you might bring it on! Nothing could be further from the truth.

Think for a moment about how this impacted her daughter. She was probably feeling vulnerable, frightened, sad and grieving for the potential loss of her health and life and then experienced friends and loved ones staying behind emotionally closed doors just at a time when she needed to be held and heard the most.

At a time when someone needs support and care, well intentioned people dismiss their concerns probably due to their own unacknowledged fears. The pressure to stay positive may actually increase stress. Some people understandably feel anxious about causing their own death if they can’t reach this unreasonable state of positivity. Such unnecessary pressure!

In the book ‘Remarkable Recovery', one doctor says ‘’The cancer patient who keeps up a false front in the name of positive attitude is doing himself a disservice. He’s cutting himself off from emotions like fear, anger and sadness that are necessary in the healing process’’.

There is a distinct difference between holding a vision for a positive outcome of health, peace and life and trying to stay constantly ‘positive’ while on the path of healing. Who says that crying or yelling out loud to your cancer is negative? Releasing these tensions might be the best thing for us!

Feelings are experienced in our bodies. Think about someone you love. Where is the bodily feeling when you conjure an image of that person or pet? Think of a situation that causes you to feel fear. Where is the bodily feeling when you conjure up that image?

Unexpressed feelings become tension which we hold in our bodies. We learn at a young age what feelings are safe to express and what are not. We cut off from these feelings and a so a part of us becomes unavailable and locked away. ‘Health’ means to ‘become whole’ but years of chronic holding back of these feelings may deplete our resources and contribute to ill mental and physical health.

Appropriate expression of anger (or any other feeling) can be hugely liberating. Personally, I like to have a good old growl in the car when no-one is listening.

There are many triggers and causes for our bodies to move from good health to disease and I believe that emotional congruence or ‘being true to ourselves’ plays a part in how we heal physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we paper over our feelings, then we may be preventing the full flowering of our potential.

Disease can be a catalyst for people to explore long buried tension and hurt. This can be challenging which is why it is sometimes best done in the company of a caring professional. It can also be liberating and lead to freedom, lightness and deep inner peace.

I encourage you to be true to yourself and to explore all the options on your path of healing including emotional wellbeing and expression.

If you have a loved one living with a life threatening or chronic illness, see if you can offer them the gift of your 100% listening. Put your own needs aside to bear hearing about their suffering so that they might feel supported as they search for their own way to health and peace. Don’t tell them what to eat, what to do or to “stay positive”. Be there. Listen. Learn.

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