Authenticity is the New Positivity

By: Anne Pitman, OICC Yoga Therapist.

Much has been written on how to “survive” cancer.  “Fight the good fight”, and “stay positive” are reflex recommendations post-diagnosis, fueled by a culture that enthrones heroes and achievement

In the midst of a significant shock and quick on the heels of overwhelming treatment information, cancer patients are meant to ignore their fear and think positive.  All. The. Time.

This frantic insistence on accepting only positive feelings and thoughts may work for some, but it leaves many people in it’s wake, feeling as though they are already failing to “win” at cancer.  It can be exhausting to continually deny feelings of fear, sorrow and grief, and to instead have to garner the energy, day after day, to smile and shake it off.  The insistence on only-sunny-thoughts for people who are understandably suffering can only leave them isolated and lonely and strangely divided between a body aching with unspoken fear and a mind determined to be “fine”.

Unintended as it may be, the pressure to remain fiercely upbeat has become yet another stress, and another way to leave the body behind, unrecognized and abandoned.

Biologically it makes sense for people to have a vast range of emotions and physical responses after a diagnosis of cancer.  Our nervous systems are set up to protect us from danger and a cancer diagnosis is justifiably perceived as a threat to safety and status quo. It makes sense that we respond quickly, as all animals do, by assessing immediate danger and advancing instantaneously into “fight, flight, freeze or fold”.  These primitive (and useful) responses are meant to be swift and temporary.  No amount of positive thinking will change the immediate physical response to the words “you have cancer”.  If the physically held pattern of shock is left unrecognized and unresolved, we can be left a wide range of understandable symptoms: from constant anxiety, insomnia and irritability to listlessness, numbness and detachment.  We can either suppress these reactions with a false positivity.  Or we can work with them directly.

Yoga Therapy, like other body-centered approaches, relies on “bottom-up” processing – listening to the experience and wisdom of the body.  False positivity is experienced as a dense un-feeling layer over natural emotional responses, leaving us unable to hear the body and respond with compassion.

By attending well to the continued sensations and symptoms of shock, by acknowledging the purpose of fight, flight, freeze or fold, by listening fully to someone in distress, we can actually accompany the nervous system, and help them return more fully to their body, the present moment and their agency, with regard to decision making and direction.

The people I see in my office have tried their best to answer the persistent call to positivity and are mostly terrified that they aren’t thinking positively enough.  In our first meeting they assure me that they are only thinking good thoughts (as though, as a Yoga Therapist I would obviously agree of the importance of this attitude).  At some point (usually when I ask them what they are experiencing in their body) they inevitably dissolve into the “negative” and their fears and worries pour forth; the overwhelm and stress of too much information in too short a time, their concerns and resistance to treatment, the worrisome meaning of their diagnosis, the grasping at what could be the cure and their utter belief that they are doing all of this wrong.  They describe their body sensations as a “choking throat”, the feeling of “something sitting on their chest”, and an “anxious tight belly”.  They have been told they have (and often receive prescriptions for) “treatment anxiety”, “depressive attitude” and “anticipatory grief”.

There simply isn’t room to feel devastated and shattered – not even for a minute.

Often clients are surprised when I receive their “negativity” with ease and acceptance.  When I acknowledge that it makes sense, as a human, living in this place and time, to feel exactly as they do, the relief in the room is palpable. As we talk, as we move and breathe and practice yoga, we bring an un-judgemental awareness to their body, and they are even more surprised that the tension and sensations of fear wash away without effort and they feel naturally “positive” – towards themselves and their experience – but authentically.

What if being positive all the time robs you of something vital and entirely human?

The diagnosis of cancer is a shock, no matter your genetic predisposition or healthy lifestyle.  It is a tornado and the strong gales bring new fears and unearth old ones. What if being positive all the time robs you of something vital and entirely human? Perhaps there is something to be gained by allowing yourself to be undone by life. Maybe, if we could lay down this false positivity long enough to notice how we truly feel, we could come back more fully into our bodies and lives, shaken yes, but seeing more clearly.  We may find that, approaching the body with compassion and a willingness to listen, brings both a physical release and a vast acceptance, a soft strength, and a full body vitality.  Instead of abandoning ourselves, we could just be human, and find, in doing so, that we can move again, breathe again.  It may be that cultivating authenticity allows us to be ourselves, and more so, as we continue the necessary and uncertain walk with cancer.  Perhaps our willingness to do so gives tacit and gracious permission to those that follow us on that path.