When Looking on the Bright Side is not Enough

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By Katie Wang

“Look on the bright side” and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” are two of the most common pieces of advice I received from my family while growing up. Sad and angry feelings were rarely discussed at home, and I was often told to get over myself when I remained upset about something for any extended period of time. While this determination to focus on the positive has served me well in many situations, as I moved through my teen years I started to realize that it offers very little guidance for how I might handle negative feelings.

What should I do when I’m so upset that focusing on the positive aspects of a situation is simply beyond me, at least for the moment? What if something is too emotionally significant for me to “get over”?

Over time, with the encouragement of close friends, I have come to learn that looking on the bright side is only part of maintaining mental wellness. In addition to counting our blessings and trying to make the best of a situation, we also need to be willing to accept our negative feelings without judgment. Only by acknowledging our feelings for what they are, even when others believe that they are excessive or unwarranted, can we move forward without getting overwhelmed with shame and self-blame. Indeed, the best thing we can do to take care of ourselves during hard times is to be gentle with ourselves and accept that there is no right or wrong way to feel.

Research in psychology has shown that healthy coping and emotion regulation is about having a number of stress management tools in our toolbox and being able to flexibly switch among different strategies in response to different life circumstances.

These days, I still very much appreciate the importance of positivity: Focusing on the positive aspects of a situation can help us break free from negative thinking and give us a sense of hope and optimism for the future. However, I also frequently remind myself of the importance of self-acceptance when positivity does not feel right or realistic.

It’s a tricky balance, for sure, but I believe that it’s something that we should all try to be mindful of.

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