Have you ever shared something upsetting or traumatizing with someone close to you, and they respond , “Well, look at the bright side…”
I find that annoying and frustrating, and I am sure you might as well.
I have many spiritually-minded friends, and they tend to offer this type of positive viewpoint in the face of negativity. It’s a good habit to have, generally, don’t get me wrong.
However, this is rarely the right approach when someone is struggling emotionally. It makes the emotional person feel unseen and unheard, resulting in frustration because the emotional person doesn’t get to feel those feelings completely
One therapist I went to, the one that really made me feel seen and heard, practiced something in these key situations that other people did not: empathy.
Empathy in this situation is recognizing and verbalizing the other person’s feelings, so they feel seen and not alone. This allows the emotional person a safe space to feel whatever it is and release it.
After experiencing this pattern from friends and family over the years, I made an important discovery- it wasn’t just friends and family doing this to me. I was saying these positive things to myself silently, in my head, immediately when I got angry or sad, or upset. I didn’t need anyone else to cut me off from my emotions. I was doing a good job all on my own.
For someone who is a huge believer in positive affirmations and the power of the mind over my reality, I made a huge decision, somewhat unconsciously:
When I was upset (angry, sad, frustrated, bitter, etc.) I stopped my habit of positive self-talk when I was in distress. I didn’t tell myself, “It will be ok,” I didn’t tell myself, “It’s not as bad as you think,” or my favorite thought, “Look at the bright side.”
And it worked- I would feel better and not carry those emotions throughout the days and weeks after.
What did I do instead of positive thinking?
I copied what my therapist did. I empathized with myself.
I checked in with myself and my body, felt what was there entirely, called out verbally out loud what those feelings were, and then did that over and over until I felt a sense of calm. (See the Body Inventory” exercise in my book, “Healing Before You’re Cured,” for a step-by-step way to do this.)
It’s simple and makes sense if you think about it:
Being present to what is going on in you allows those things to be felt fully, and then your body can let go of those feelings and associated thoughts, allowing yourself to return to neutral. If you were brought up in an emotionally healthy home, you might recognize that you already do this automatically. (Thank your parents!)
One important corollary is to know that this awareness and release of emotion are linked to your overall health and wellbeing. When we suppress or cut off emotion, we even can actually hurt our chances of healing from diseases, even serious ones such as cancer. (this is a link to an article: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9874465/ )
One important caveat: When the events are extremely traumatic, doing this process on your own is not recommended. I don’t recommend even using trusted friends unless you have no choice. Why? Trained therapists can listen empathetically, but the good ones also can help take you to the next level beyond emotions: clarity. This clarity will help you see what you need to do next from a place of peace and nonreactivity.
Dr. Roy Vongtama is a double Board Certified physician (Radiation Oncology, Lifestyle Medicine) and professional actor. Getting his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, the University at Buffalo, and then a residency at UCLA, he began to see missing pieces in the paradigms of his Western training. Dr. Vongtama’s interesting and varied background in meditation, acting, and nutrition drove him to create a dynamic healing paradigm that combines the best of evidence-based medicine to benefit the entire body, mind, and spirit, with a special emphasis on emotional wellness and meditation. He currently works at UCLA and also has recently published a book called “Healing Before You’re Cured: An Evidence-based Guide to Taking Control of Your Body and Mind” which can be found on Instagram at @DoctorRoyV, Facebook at RoyVongtamaMD and on his website, www.MDRoy.com. Dr. Vongtagma recently was the lead in the World Premiere of the Off-Broadway play The Brothers Paranormal at Theater Row in New York City and reprising the role in Los Angeles in 2022.