Sometimes in life, you have to step on a crack.
I found myself getting all “rah-rah” with my daughter the other day. She had a really crumby day at school and, feeling her sadness as acutely as if it were happening to me, I tried to quickly talk her out of it. I gave her all the lines, you know the ones: “Look on the bright side!”, “Think about what a great day you had yesterday!”, and the perennial favorite “Turn that frown upside down!” Yuck. Even I was repelled by myself. She finally looked at me with her big spoon-like eyes and said, “Mom, just don’t try to cheer me up.” Stopping suddenly in my tracks, I realized that I was doing what was best for me, not for her. I was so uncomfortable with her emotional state, that I tried to shake her out of it. I wasn’t accepting the truth of how she was really feeling, and to her that felt like rejection. I am noticing it all the time now, like at the coffee shop when a friend tells another stressed friend to “stay positive” and “don’t let yourself get depressed.” While well-meaning and heartfelt, maybe what your friend really needs to hear is “that fucking sucks.”
In our brains, we are biased to being an optimist or a pessimist on a structural and chemical level. You know, you’ve taken the tests of which one you are. (If not, try this one.) There is an area of your brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) which lights up on brain scans when thinking optimistic thoughts, while seeming to malfunction in people who had depression. Funny though, we are all hard wired toward optimism. Yes, even the teen you see walking to high school every day wearing full black, wrist cuffs, head-down/hood-up and hair dyed orange. It’s called optimism bias, and it means we tend toward the rosier side when thinking about our own futures even smack in the face of that little thing called reality. Statistically, people radically overestimate their own odds of getting divorced, getting fired, having a child who is above average and how long they will live. So maybe all this super-positive-ness has some neurobiological roots.
In any event, some of us are just cheerier or more gloomy than others. So be it. Tending to fall more into the realist category, I am somewhere between an optimist and a pessimist. More like a “defensive pessimist” as Julie K. Norem of Wellesley College describes us. We tend to set a lower bar, think about things that might go wrong (note: not obsess) and mount a defense based on our skilled breakdown of what may actually happen. This can actually help you turn some of that hand-wringing into a plan of action. Like writing a list of pros and cons. Or eating a pint of ice cream. Or writing a blog.
So what to do when someone tries to cheer you up, or when you find yourself being the cheerleader (check out this awesome video of the Onion, and how the FDA has found a drug to cure the “excessively perky”)? Take a step back and figure out if your counsel is working for you, or for the person you are supposedly trying to help. I love this quote from writer Augusten Burroughs (who wrote the book “This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike” in case you didn’t know he was awesome):
Truthfulness itself is almost medicinal, even when it’s served without advice or insight. Just hearing true words spoken out loud provides relief.
And so, remembering how I feel about truth, I just told my daughter, “it sounds like you had a bad day.” And then made a plan for the next day. And then we snuggled up and read a book together. And we both felt better.
photo credit: Barbara Paulsen