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 children and followed all the rules. I obeyed my parents and did helpful things around the house. I rarely 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, so I was 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 acceptable, 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 have”.
This coping method that helped me survive as a child followed me in big and small ways into my adult years. It kept me vulnerable to abuse and perpetuated it.
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 blinded me from examining things realistically. 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 demanding role under the associate pastor, who claimed to be my friend. It was a position outside of my comfort and talents, but she convinced me that it would be good for my growth. The truth was that it was what she needed, not what I needed.
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 appreciation.
Did I allow myself to get mad at this pastor-friend? Did I confront her dismissive behavior? Did I recognize that I deserved to be appreciated? Did I set appropriate boundaries? Not at all.
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.
For me, there were several dangers of gratitude and a positive attitude:
- My positive spin was a form of denial. It blinded me to the reality of circumstances. I accepted situations that were harmful instead of changing them or moving away from them. My positive thinking didn’t produce a positive experience; it condemned me to a negative one.
- I believed it was more virtuous to “grin and bear it”. My smile “proved” that I was stronger than the situation. In reality, the only thing that was getting stronger was the hold that abuse and abusers had on me.
- Under the guise of “looking for the good”, I believed that abuse was character building and something to be thankful for. The truth is that abuse is self-esteem robbing and soul crushing. It doesn’t build anything; abuse tears down.
- My positive attitude invalided my pain. As long as I insisted on viewing everything optimistically, I discounted my painful experiences and dismissed my real feelings.
- It conflicted with the normal grieving process of my losses and prevented me from expressing my sadness, pain and anger. When a positive attitude is used to offer hope, that’s helpful to the grieving process, but not when it demands constant cheerfulness.
I finally recognized my power and gave myself permission to see the truth. Doing that required me to face the dysfunctional values I’d adopted to endure my abusive past.
I’m no longer a powerless child, unable to improve my life. I’m an empowered adult who actually is optimistic and grateful. But now, I see things realistically. I can imagine an even better future, knowing I’m empowered to improve the things I don’t like.
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.
Have you ever felt pressure to be grateful or optimistic? Have you ever been afraid of not being grateful? What role does optimism play in your life or healing journey? Does it serve you well? I’d love to hear your feelings and experiences about this so please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.