Optimism. Pluckiness. Courage. Tenacity. Can-do attitude. These are attributes we associate with successful people. As parents, we encourage these traits in our children. As a nation, it’s practically ingrained in our national identity: We are a society that overcomes hardships and comes out stronger on the other side. Adversity is little more than a character-building experience. Devastated by a recent mesothelioma diagnosis or other cancer diagnosis? Show ‘em who’s boss! Brave cancer with a smile on your face! Tough it out while reminding yourself and everyone around you that “everything happens for a reason!”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And at the very least, remaining upbeat in the face of crisis couldn’t possibly hurt, right? Well, maybe it could, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. Relentless positivity, says Ehrenreich, may actually have a counter-effect.
The truth is, these ideas pre-date The Secret by decades. Versions of “the tyranny of positive thought” exist everywhere from the self-help aisle to corporate leadership training to our own churches.
Perhaps the idea is to empower us to build our own futures by taking luck out of the equation. We should not credit (or blame) our successes or failures on good fortune, or lack thereof. We are singularly responsible for all the ups and downs we face.
The problem, of course, is that those who face crises beyond their control such as mesothelioma are left to wonder what they did wrong. And those who find themselves succumbing to depression and misery are made to feel like failures for being unable to keep up the charade of constant happy thoughts. Perhaps most troubling, people with cancer often state that the stress and worry they feel is actually exacerbating their illness—a misconception common among Cancer and mesothelioma patients in particular. Talk about stress compounding stress!
The truth, according to psychologists who work with cancer patients, is that moments of doubt and depression are not only natural, but expected. If depression continues unabated for months at a time, it should be treated by a medical professional like any other symptom. Stay tuned as we’ll be sharing information on mesothelioma support groups in an upcoming article.