The Dangers of Gratitude and a Positive Attitude

Aug 8th, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Christina's Blog

Christina Enevoldsen

by Christina Enevoldsen

When I was a child, I was very well-behaved. I listened to my teachers and earned good grades. I got along well with other kids and followed all the rules. I obeyed my parents and did helpful things around the house. I never got in trouble except for one thing: My parents complained about my bad attitude.

At ten years old, I had no idea what an attitude was or how I was supposed to change it. This complaint ruined my perfect behavior record, so I determined to correct it. Eventually, I figured out the unspoken family rule: Thou shalt be cheerful. Looking back, I can see that the pain and secrets under the weight of my father’s sexual abuse were leaking out through my “bad attitude.” I had to endure the abuse and then conceal my feelings about it. The message was: “No matter what’s happening, smile about it because frowns make others uncomfortable.”

I knew that to be loved, I had to have a good attitude. I took this lesson into adulthood and ingested all the books and articles I could find on positive thinking. It was almost a religion—in fact, my church taught it too, except they put a twist on it. “Thou shalt be cheerful, lest God think you’re ungrateful and take away what little you do have”.

I learned to have a positive attitude about everything—things that I should have run from. I accepted circumstances without questioning them. Instead of making improvements to my life, I improved the way I perceived my life. My optimism helped me to cope with the powerlessness I felt, but it unempowered me to examine things realistically.

This coping mechanism that helped me survive as a child also followed me in big and small ways into my adult years. It tied me to an abusive marriage for twenty-one years while I convinced myself I was happy.  I actively searched for good qualities in my husband and overlooked the fact that he was abusing me and my children.

This false grasp of reality also kept me serving in an abusive church for many years. I looked the other way while I was disregarded and dismissed. One of those times, I was serving in a very demanding role under the associate pastor, who claimed to be my friend. It was a position outside of my comfort zone, but she convinced me that it would be good for my growth. After years of serving dutifully in that role, I was dismissed without a word from ‘my friend’. She sent a message through someone else that she was finished with me. No explanation or thank you.

Did I allow myself to get mad at this pastor-friend? Did I confront her behavior? Did I learn that I couldn’t trust her? Did I refuse to participate anymore? Did I recognize that I deserved to be appreciated? NO.

I saw myself through the eyes of a helpless child with the only choice to smile about the abuse. I put on my happy face and told myself that this was a good occasion to stop taking myself so seriously. It was a character-building opportunity that would “humble” me so I was ready for the next position. My positive spin actually made me think I should be grateful for the abuse.

It was time to recognize my power and give myself permission to see the truth. Doing that required me to face the dysfunctional values my parents taught me. I had to face the lie that told me I was unworthy of love if I looked sad or that I would lose more if I was unthankful. I had to acknowledge my value apart from doing my happy performance. I had to confront the lie that I was still a helpless child. I reset my mind to the truth and recognized where I distorted the truth to avoid facing painful realities. Now that I know where they come from and how unfounded they are, I’m alert to those lies.

Now, my positive attitude serves me well. With it, I can imagine a better future than my current situation provides, knowing I’m empowered to improve things. I still think of the glass as half-full, but now I question what I can do to fill the glass instead of just assuming that half-full is all there ever will be.

Does this resonate with you? Please join in by leaving your thoughts and feelings about this topic and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina's story here]

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18 comments
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  1. Wonderful…describes me exactly! Now I have a positive attitude that means that I can actually be aware so I can see problems and deal with them…rather than pretending they don’t exist and pretending I am happy anyway! Now I am happy because and I can see the behavior so clearly in others and instead of fighting back I can approach with calm and understanding and ask questions that make sense so that they can look inward and even if they refuse to acknowledge it…I know it gets through…I know they can see it too….and I know when to say…okay…and walk the other way :)

  2. Wendi–exactly! As long as it was just pretending, it didn’t do anything but keep us contentedly moving in the same awful directiion. I’m so happy we’re empowered now, not only to see the truth, but to take action.

  3. Christina,
    I love how you ended this post. I spent many years trying to “accept things the way that they are” and that translated into accepting that they would not be different. Spinning my wheels becasue deep down I thought there must be a way to overcome all this, but at the same time telling myself to stop looking; just accept and give up. I am so glad that I kept looking! I was just missing a few keys. Once I found them I realized that I can accept the past, but I don’t have to let it rule over my present.
    Love this site!!!
    Hugs, Darlene

  4. Darlene,

    I love what you said, “I realized that I can accept the past, but I don’t have to let it rule over my present.” Yes, I whole-hearted agree! In fact, we can’t begin to improve our present or future until we accept the past. I think that since acceptance involves the ability to really see it for what it was, we have to be in a position of personal empowerment. If not, then we’ll either minimize its effects out of fear of being overwhelmed OR see the past as much more monstrous than it was because we see ourselves as so small. So, if we are able to see and accept the past for what it is, it’s an indication that we are equipped with power to overcome it and move forward. Thanks for your comment!

    Hugs,
    Christina

  5. I so loved this quote:

    The survivor who wants to get well is often in conflict with a dysfunctional family who doesn’t share the same goals. One seeks health while the other desperately protects the status quo. They don’t share the same values, so there is no place to meet in the middle.
    — Christina Enevoldsen

    This is where I’m at now. I have never experienced physical or sexual abuse, but I have endured verbal and emotional abuse. Quite frankly, I would have rather been physically beaten than to have been beaten down in this manner. My mother hasn’t been in my life for 10 years. I recently found out that my mother still thinks she does nothing wrong and hasn’t done anything wrong. My brother recently got married – everyone was basically asking me to ‘suck it up’ to come – with my mother being there. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The woman was awful to me and showing up would have meant to my mother that I was willing to let everything she did to me just get swept under the carpet with her “It will be so nice having all my kids under the same roof and together again.” No way I was doing that.

    Anyway, what resulted is me sending my last letter to my mother, as well as letters to my Dad (parents are divorced) as well as all my siblings. They too just wanted to pretend like nothing is wrong. I was told that they “don’t want to hear about my crap anymore.” I was very hurt … again … but not surprised at all.

    It’s not fun facing the truth … but facing the truth also brings healing, even when it hurts. I have decided to distance myself from my dysfunctional and blind family and move on in my healing by myself, that I might be able to pass on a better heritage to my kids!

    I loved your post by the way!

  6. Hi Amaryllis,

    I can understand your pain from verbal and emotional abuse. I think a lot of people ‘grade’ types of abuse from serious to not-so-serious and I don’t agree with that. Survivors of all types of abuse seem to have the same struggles. Abuse is abuse. All abuse is emotional abuse because the maltreatment in itself communicates that we aren’t valuable enough to be treated well.

    I know the rejection from family is very painful. After trying to establish a healthier, more honest relationship with my parents, the relationship completely broke down. At first, their rejection didn’t feel very painful. Most of what I felt was relief. But as I faced other things, the pain sunk in. I had to go through a grieving process so I could move on. Actually, I’m still in that process, though I’ve worked through a lot of it. I feel bad for them for the lies they still live in, but I’m so much happier living in my own truth and being free of their abuse.

    Good for you for working to pass on a better heritage to your kids. Happy Healing!

    Christina

  7. Thanks for pointing me to this post – all my life I’ve worn a fake smile – my earliest memory is being sat on my grandfather’s lap with him sexually assaulting me and sitting there with a big smile on my face, even though I was in excruciating pain, smiling at everyone else in the room because that was what good little girls did – but all the time wondering why no-one was doing anything about what my grandfather was doing. As I got older I had to wear the ‘happy family’ disguise at church and anywhere in public. It soon became something I just did – I always smiled. Down the years when I have let people in to my hurt I’ve heard over and over but you’re always smiling.

  8. Fi,
    Wow, you’re so right when you call that ‘happy family’ smile a disguise! They teach us to wear that disguise first so we protect them and then we learn it to protect ourselves. Thanks for sharing that!
    Hugs, Christina

  9. I’ve felt like not being positive lately was being so rebellious. Growing up I had to just say what I was told to say and show no emotion. That was better and easier for them to control. It’s so weird reading things from people that describe my own feelings. So many years spent feeling all alone and misunderstood.

  10. Genesis, I can relate to feeling rebellious for not being positive. We learn such dysfunctional rules in abusive systems. It’s time to make our own rules to fit a healthier life. Thanks for commenting!
    Christina

  11. I’ve read so many posts that have helped me today. Thank you for creating this site and sharing your stories.
    This post was poignant for me – I was raised in a Christian Science family and church. The Christian Science religion is essentially positive-thinking + denial + self-shame for imperfections. Its doctrines were used by my family to hide all dysfunctions. In Christian Science, the followers believe that to completely ignore a disease or problem is the path to cure it. There were people in my church and family who knew my father was sexually abusive, but did nothing. Anyway, I escaped Christian Science in April 2010 (yay!), but this training in positive-thinking and denial still permeates my thinking and impairs my judgment. My therapist notes how I often joke about the trauma and laugh often at how ridiculous my family members are…it is much harder to cry. Fortunately, I have learned to grieve and have separated (mostly) from my family.

  12. AmyH,
    Welcome to OSA! Thank you for sharing your experience. The formula for dealing with imperfections you described sounds so much like what I was taught in church too. “Saved by grace” was preached, but what was modeled was the same thing you described. I’m so glad to have gotten out of that sick system and I’m glad you have too. Yay for seeing the truth!
    Christina

  13. Thankyou Christina, this describes my life exactly. I am thankful to God that others like yourself are brave enough to speak openly. You are helping us that arent as brave to heal and face up too past sexual abuse that has caused so much grief .. I am thankful to God for you and he loves you so very much.

  14. I have been thinking the same lately: that my self-imposed “attitude of gratitude” and my efforts to put on a happy face have been hurting me and allowing me to ignore what’s hurting and avoid change.

    I continue to find your posts inspirational and healing. Thank you for all you do.

  15. Sharon, thank you for sharing that!

    Chris, that’s interesting that you’ve found the same thing yourself. I love how that happens!

  16. I have to have a cheerful attitude in order to avoid my spouse’s wrath. I need to fake it whenever possible or I subject myself to his hostility. The ultimate revenge will be to perfect this positive attitude, make him think things are fine in his world, then leave – making his head spin. But I always seem to fail. I get upset, grumpy, or mention something that sets him off. I totally get what you are saying – really, I do – but when you are living it and there is truly no escape right now, then you have to protect yourself by whatever means are necessary.

  17. Debbie,
    I understand those feelings so well. When I was in the abusive system, coping was all I saw. I didn’t see any way out of abuse either, even when I was an adult. I’d learned the lesson my abusers wanted me to learn–that I was no match for their power and my only choice was to submit. I hope you’re able to find the power that you do have and escape your abuse.
    Christina

  18. Christina,

    Thank you. I do have the power but not the finances – for now. And to add to everything, I just found out that he has early dementia – crazy as that is. So there are many issues – morally and ethically, as well as personally. Who would have thought a major medical issue would confound my ability to leave?! I deal with garbage for way too many years and could possibly be stuck with an overwhelming medical issue. My take? God has given him over to the depravity of his own mind. However, it’s vascular dementia which has a much slower progression than Alzheimer’s (his dad has had it for 20 years!) so I might still leave. The abuse doesn’t go away and could get worse with the disease. Life…

    Debbie

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