Sex & Relationships

Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal with Life's Problems

Looking at crap and calling it candy has become a growth industry. But experts say there are better ways to deal with crisis.

One of the funniest, sickest and catchiest scenes in film history was at the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Brian and about a dozen other guys have been crucified and while they're waiting to die one of them launches into that impossibly perky little toe-tapper, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

This parody was written 30 years ago but its ironic ending of the whistling doomed feels totally appropriate for today; a time of crisis in which the desire to learn how to look at crap and call it candy has become a growth industry. Affirmations, visualizations and the long arm of the Law of Attraction -- you attract what you put out -- seem to be everywhere. Undoubtedly someone has met your doubts this year with the mantra "Think positive!" And how dearly we'd all love to believe that wishing could make it so.

Barbara Ehrenreich takes a long, comprehensive look at positive thinking in her most recent book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich delves into our country's religious history, the way positive thinking has been absorbed into religion, psychology and economics, the ubiquity of motivational speakers, and why it might not be such a good thing to, say, avoid the news because it brings you down. One of the most memorable passages in the book is a call center worker who describes having to simulate happiness as "the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying."

Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is what ushered Ehrenreich into the world of positive thinking, where despite innumerable stories of fellow sufferers on the Internet, she felt increasingly isolated: "No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments," she writes, and later, "The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage -- not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the lifecycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood." In one case cancer is characterized as a "gift."

In the current economic crisis we are all giving and receiving more bad news all the time. Maybe later you can help your friend spin that pink slip into gold, but even if you mean well, jumping straight to "This is a good thing!" might not be something she can hear right now.

So what is the best, most compassionate way to respond when a friend has been visited by -- gasp! -- negativity: a job loss, an illness, a break-up, a breakdown, or any other of life's freaking "gifts" for which here is no evident return counter? I talked to four authors, all of whom offered excellent advice for how best to respond to a friend or family member in crisis.

Dr. John Sharp, a neuropsychiatrist who teaches at Harvard and UCLA and whose forthcoming book, The Emotional Calendar is due out next year, says that while being positive has value, "you can't deny the stress you're under or the reality and think you're doing yourself a favor." Real change starts with acceptance. Once that's taken place Dr. Sharp recommends a technique called PERL, an acronym that stands for Partnership, Empathy, Respect and Legitimization.

The first, Partnership, has a brief prelude: as a friend you have to quickly assess and decide how much you're able to really be there for this person, which can help you steer your own course more effectively.

Sharp says the ability to say, "I'm going to be there with you from now til this is all done," is "worth so much, it's unbelievable; it's worth I don't know how many milligrams of medication." But you have to mean it.

The next step is Empathy: "Conveying in as few words as possible your appreciation of how someone feels." You don't want to say, "Oh, that must be so hard for you," because the "for you" part "puts up walls" he says, making a distinction that essentially says "You poor SOB...but I don't have that problem." Just say "Oh, that's so sad," or "That's so hard," so the person feels understood.

Dr. Charles Sophy, who has appeared on shows like “Larry King Live” and “Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab,” is the medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. His upcoming book, Side By Side: The Revolutionary Mother-Daughter Program for Conflict-Free Communication, comes out in February 2010. Some of his patients come through crisis hotlines, and may not have even reached the acceptance stage yet.

"These calls come in usually through the child abuse hotline -- that's how we know a family is in need, it shows in a child coming to school not clean or not eating or not as intact as they were," he says when asked how to handle people who have suffered a job loss or other fallout from the economic crisis. "These people are coming from a huge place of fear and embarrassment," he says. They don't want to lose their families.

Sophy counsels listeners to let people tell their stories. "Sometimes no response is fine," he says. "Most people just want to be heard, they want to vent and own it," and once they see you're not horrified but empathetic and supportive it calms the situation.

"Money is power to people," he says, especially men, who feel that when "their money is gone their power is gone." You have to allow them space "to step down from that perceived power position." Once that terrible pressure is off they can be relieved: "They become people again."

Sheri Winston, sex therapist and author of Women's Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure is a former nurse practitioner and midwife who often had to deliver bad news rather than hear it -- STDs, unwanted pregnancy, complications with a pregnancy. She says that "as soon as those words are out of your mouth people sometimes can't process any more information."

Winston says this is where empathy comes in; just saying, "Wow, I know this is really hard to hear. It's okay to be upset. It's okay to cry." It's also important to be sensitive to individual reactions, to read those reactions and to permit people to respond. Some people, she says, want a lot of information right away. Others need a hug. For people who are overwhelmed by bad news, Winston lets them know she'll be there to give them more information when they're ready. If people jump to the conclusion that a manageable condition -- like herpes, a treatable STD -- is automatically a tragedy it's best to try to give them some perspective.

For some a broken heart is far more painful than the loss of a job. Empathy was also the first response of Cristina Nehring, essayist and author of A Vindication of Love. In an e-mail from her Paris home, she wrote that all situations are different and responses have to be carefully tailored; for instance, she might say, upon hearing news of an unwanted breakup: "Oh, DAMN. Whew. Ouch. I'm terribly sorry. How are you feeling in the moment?" and then try to "echo what they express, to make them know they're understood. Then, hopefully, I'd attempt to let in a little light from somewhere."

Next in Dr. Sharp's PERL acronym is Respect, which is praise for what your troubled friend is doing right. Acknowledge the courage it took to talk about the problem, Dr. Sharp says. Make plans to talk about it again, and remind your friend to get a decent meal and a good night's sleep. (Indeed, my BFF once said to me, when I was running on empty, "Do NOT make ANY decisions until you eat.")

Basic self-care like that often gets forgotten, even by professionals. If you tell someone you've lost your job he might think, "How secure is my job?" and then he's not even hearing the client, says Dr. Sophy. The advice he gives to combat getting worn down from such thoughts is the SWEEP technique: Sleep, Work, Eating, Emotional Expression and Play. Getting those things in balance is important and whether it's the person with the problem or the helper, "the better intact their SWEEP is before the crisis the better equipped they are to handle it."

Cristina Nehring also points out to people what they're doing right -- even if it's their suffering: "It's wonderful that you can love as strongly as you can. And can suffer as much as you can. Because pain is a measure of love, whether we like to think so or not. But realize, also, that you will get through and beyond this." Remind the person that she has not lost any of herself or her gifts: "All that you were when X fell in love with you, you are today."

You can probably shuffle these steps around a little bit, tailoring to meet the individual situation; but with PERL in mind, the last step is Legitimization, a reminder that this bum steer is not the person's fault.

Part of the positive thinking dogma is that negative thoughts attract negative events, which, Sheri Winston says, can get turned around on people who feel they got sick because of their attitude. So now, on top of being sick they feel guilty. "It really pisses me off when people minimize other people's pain," she says. "When something is hurting it's scary...those things are important to acknowledge."

"If someone has a major depression," Dr. Sharp says, remind them it's not their fault. "It's a medical problem, it could happen to anybody. Let's just see what we can do about it."

Cristina Nehring feels like it's okay to acknowledge pitfalls in the lost relationship (personally, I think a little deflation of the other party is an excellent notion). "You know yourself," she writes, "that while you loved X to pieces, it wasn't a perfect relationship for you." She even evokes a little Casablanca: "You can have something -- MAKE something -- even more beautiful. Not today, not tomorrow, not immediately. But keep your heart open and your beautiful spirit up and it will come, I promise you." She says it's important to help your friend find some "foothold, however fragile, from which to pounce again into the future, for pounce we must."

"They know the sun is going to shine. They know that in their head," Dr. Sophy says, citing a patient who lost his job, went through his savings and his pension and ended up selling bottled water out of a cooler at an intersection -- and was ultimately the better for it.

"He's found a whole other side of himself and a better way to connect to his family and community," Sophy says, but at first it was almost like withdrawal from a drug. Get through that and "you're in a better place and can make better choices, otherwise you're running on anxiety and perception."

Holding in negative feelings can lead to serious problems, even suicidal or homicidal thoughts. "You've got to deal with it," he says, likening venting to a kind of emotional purging that gets the bad stuff out. If someone doesn't let you vent (as in Ehrenreich's experience), Dr. Sophy says, "not letting somebody else puke is because they're afraidthey're gonna puke."

Anyone who's ever been in a meaningful relationship has cleaned up something -- diapers, regurgitated margaritas, scary laundry -- far worse than a little emotional vomit. You can take it. Once your friend expels her fear, anger or confusion you can help her figure out the next step, or maybe even just relax. Take a walk. Rent a movie. There's this really good flick by Monty Python. Maybe your friend will like the upbeat ending.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.