The Dangers of Gratitude and a Positive AttitudeAug 8th, 2010 | By Christina Enevoldsen | Category: All Posts, Steps Toward Healing
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.
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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.