Why “Look for the silver lining” might not be good advice to follow all the time.
Most self-help books and personal development articles would tell you how it’s best to focus on the positive for maximum growth. But if you only look for the good amid the bad, can this truly be healthy? That way, you won’t even notice pain. You won’t understand what’s going on.
A really drastic example of this is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. You might focus on the positive and rejoice that the number of active cases is decreasing. But what about the several people still carrying the virus without ever getting tested or showing symptoms? If you’re too fixated on the declining number of cases, you’d get complacent, not wear a mask or carry your sanitizer, and before you know it, might catch the virus.
Agreed, this is too exaggerated an example, but the gist is this: focusing on the silver lining can make you blind to the cloud. You’ll learn to ignore the pain after a while. And the constant need to “be happy” might ironically suck the pleasure out of your life.
“After a while, you learn that even sunshine
burns if you get too much.”
— Veronica Shorffstall, Comes the Dawn
This article explores the trend of toxic positivity permeated by self-help books and writers dabbling in personal development. Is it alright to chase happiness to such an extent that you start becoming immune to pain?
What if the pain is essential, and it can actually teach you more about yourself than happiness ever could? Let’s dive in
The Indicator of Discomfort
As Medical News Today states, physical pain is an unpleasant sensation and emotional experience that links to tissue damage. It allows the body to react and prevent further damage.
Pain on a psychological level can be a similar indicator of emotional anguish. If you are feeling consistently low, maybe it’s an indication that something’s wrong with your surroundings — a way for your subconscious to rebel against your current situation and prompt you to get out of it.
If you turn away from it and only focus on the positive, how would you know there’s something wrong? Ignoring the symptoms and sweeping uncomfortable realizations under the carpet would only mean forcing yourself to adjust to the distress you’re in. If you don’t acknowledge the pain and try to get to the root cause, how can you reach a viable solution?
Here are some ways I’ve adopted to identify the root cause. You can adopt the same to embrace growth:
Don’t fill your head with external stimuli all the time
In other words: don't check your phone each time you’re bored. Sure, podcasts and audiobooks are a great way to improve your productivity, but they snatch away the opportunity to spend time with your thoughts.
There was a time I used to run away from being alone because I was terrified of what demons I’d have to deal with. But in 2020, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: self-awareness comes with a price, but it’s the best (and probably the only) tool for growth.
Yes, it’s hard to listen to your thoughts, but you’ve got to do it to learn what kind of person you are. Without this, no amount of self-help content will help. Silence offers opportunities for self-reflection and daydreaming, which activates multiple parts of the brain. It gives us time to turn down the inner noise and increase awareness of what matters most.
Write what you feel and be honest with yourself
It’s difficult for me to be completely transparent during conversations with people. However, my journal is the friend I turn to for solace. It’s where I write all my thoughts out and am unabashedly honest with myself.
Journaling has cleared my head of a ton of clutter and helped me acknowledge my innermost feelings and desires. You might find some emotions too hard to acknowledge, but remember that it’s your journal. No one else is going to read it. Be as honest and open with yourself as possible. Reflective journaling can be a great tool for self-awareness and personal growth. It can help you prioritize problems and track any symptoms so you can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them.
Allow yourself to just be
There’ve been times when something triggered me, my immediate instinct was to start binge-watching a show or lose myself in a book. But several sessions with my therapist have helped me understand that such acts will only cure the symptoms, not the root cause.
Instead, my therapist advised me to embrace the sadness. She said it was okay to wallow in self-pity for as long as I needed, but then pull myself back together and move on.
You don’t have to be happy all the time, as long as you don’t let the sadness overcome and take control. A book that helped me come to terms with this is How to Be a Movie Star by TJ Klune. The novel carries such an accurate representation of mental health, the narrative took my breath away. One of the quotes that gave me strength was:
“Sometimes you need to hide away from the rest of the world. And it’s okay to do that. Just as long as you know the world is waiting for you when you’re done. It’s not important to win every battle as long as you don’t give up fighting the war.”
— TJ Klune
The Blessing in Disguise
We humans are fragile creatures. We like to keep as much distance as possible between pain and ourselves. Our instinct tells us to either immerse ourselves in work or mindless entertainment so we don’t have to be in more discomfort. But pain can be a blessing in disguise too.
Pain helps you recognize pleasure
As the licensed psychotherapist, Amy Morin, puts it, “If you felt happy all the time, you wouldn’t recognize it as happiness.” You need to experience the opposite end of the spectrum sometimes to be able to truly recognize and appreciate happiness.
Pain makes you aware of your present
If you never felt pain, you’d never know if the current situation you’re in is unpleasant or disturbing. The sensation of emotional pain helps you identify what’s wrong with your present so you can take steps to make it better.
As Morin continues in her article, “Being in the moment means you’ll be less likely to ruminate about what happened yesterday or worry about what could happen tomorrow. Learning how to stay in the moment — even when you’re not in pain — can help you live a happier life.”
Pain forms social bonds
When I was at my lowest, I chanced upon a self-published book I normally wouldn’t have picked up. The only reason I read it was because the blurb told me the protagonist had the same issues as I did. I was so struck by this fictional character, that I felt I needed to know more about the creator. That’s when I found the author had based the character on them and the book was a semi-autobiographical piece. Touched, I reached out to them and we had a long talk about the plot, the character, and how it made me feel. Eventually, I found myself opening up, and today, two years later, the author and I are close friends.
It’s no secret that pain helps people form bonds. It’s likely that if you know someone who has suffered from something similar, you’d be more willing to open up to them. In addition, pain helps develop empathy and makes you more open to accepting differences.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
— Maya Angelou
Pain can be a great teacher and a strong motivator. Tough times teach you more about yourself and the world than good phases ever can. Happiness can actually come out of difficulty, not just in spite of it. It’s not necessary to always look for the silver lining. Sometimes the dark cloud can be the shield from the harsh sunlight, and sometimes, that shield can allow you to keep your eyes open long enough to move out of the uncomfortable situation you’re in.
Yes, the current trends in the self-help community might have taught you to put a great deal of thought into creating the best possible life for yourself. But no matter what you do, pain and difficulty are inevitable. Rather than turning away from them and pretending they don’t exist, it’s perhaps better to treat them as challenges and use them as stepping stones to move forward.
You might face temporary discomfort in facing the troubles head-on. But being aware of the pain and taking mindful steps to get rid of it would put you more in control of your life and help you strive towards a better future.
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