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The other day, I walked into my friend’s kid’s bathroom and on the mirror, there was a sticky note.
The sticky note read, “Focus on the positive.”
Though I recognized the intention of the message—because it’s so easy to move through life and let our negativity bias take the wheel—I couldn’t help but taste a bitterness on my tongue from the well-intentioned reminder.
I quietly crept into the room adjacent to the bathroom and rummaged through the drawer to find a pencil. I returned to the sticky note and scribbled seven more words onto the paper until it read:
Focus on the positive.
Or not. And remember that’s okay, too.
I’m sharing this story not because I’m saying we shouldn’t focus on the positive but because we need to become more mindful of how phrases like “focus on the positive” can invalidate someone’s experience and create more suffering if we don’t also remind them that it’s okay if they can’t.
And that’s the most important bit—we need to include both. Yes, please, focus on the positive. And yes, please, talk to your kids about the importance of gratitude and privilege, but also, please, validate their experience of how f*cking hard it can be to be a human by letting them know that it’s okay to feel upset, frustrated, or downright angry at the tiniest things.
And, again, I want to make it clear that I love the idea of practicing gratitude and recognizing the beauty of our day-to-day lives, but nailing the idea into our kids’ heads that they need to “focus on the positive” only sets the stage for more self-criticism in the moments when they simply cannot focus on the positive.
And I’ll be honest, I still struggle with allowing myself to feel my negative feelings when I know that I have an incredibly beautiful and privileged life and I should probably be “focusing on the positive.” But I am still a human. And I am allowed to feel what I feel, despite my circumstances. And so are our kids.
And if we want to remind our kids to focus on the positive, we must also remind them that focusing on the positive isn’t always as easy as it sounds. And it takes practice—just like everything else in life. And if we can’t seem to get it on our first try (or even our 100th try), that is okay.
Feeling negative feelings is a necessary part of our human experience. And as soon as we start telling our children that they should “focus on the positive,” we are also creating the belief that any feelings that aren’t “positive” are, in fact, negative and unwanted. As a result, we forget to recognize that our negative feelings serve a purpose and deserve to be validated and honored (and maybe they aren’t even “negative” at all).
Moral of the story: it’s okay to be a human.
And it’s okay to have big feelings. And it’s okay to not always focus on the positive all the damn time. And let’s not forget to remind our kids about this, too.