A Proud Optimist - The Positive Application of a Coping Strategy.
People often refer to “the mask” of mental illness – that fixed smile I put in place before I leave the house. That expression that leads everyone to say, “You have a mental illness? I had no idea! You always look so cheerful!”
Positivity is a powerful thing, for ourselves and for others. Smile, and the world smiles with you. Smiling puts other people at ease. Smiling makes other people think that everything is fine, and so no action is required on their part.
And what do my smiles do for me? Putting people at ease puts them off the scent. They don’t think anything is wrong, therefore they won’t ask, and I won’t have to talk about it or reveal myself, or pick at that scab – because that gets exhausting. Sometimes, I just want to be. Sometimes, it’s easier to smile than to deal with other people’s reactions, in addition to what I’m already dealing with myself. Sometimes, I need to work it through in my own head before I reveal it to other people.
My smile gives me space.
I always have an extreme, sometimes violent reaction to cynicism and negativity. I simply do not have the means to tolerate it. I have come to realise that my optimistic nature is one of my coping mechanisms. Positive emotions are much easier to experience than negative ones. As a child, I projected positivity and calmness because it just made life easier. When someone would ask, “Did you have a good day at school?” it was always easier to say “Yes”, than get into the reasons why not and deal with the consequences of that. This has continued into adulthood. “Are you ok?”
That kind of denial can’t be healthy, right? I don’t recommend it. Pushing it all down and not acknowledging it just makes it manifest in other ways. I have been doing it so long that I am simply disconnected from any negative emotion – and when placed in a situation where it is unavoidable, my reactions are extreme and disturbing. My psychotherapist once stopped me during a particularly harrowing session because my laughter was unnerving. Having highlighted these inappropriate emotional responses, she gently encouraged me to break through that barrier and connect with it safely and appropriately – and I never have been able to. It is simply my wonderful brain engaging in self-preservation.
But now, having had medical treatment, has this survival mechanism ultimately helped me in my recovery, as well? Just like CBT teaches how to turn negative thought processes into positive ones, can these unhealthy coping mechanisms be understood, harnessed and embraced for improved mental health?
I read somewhere on Twitter recently: optimism feels better than cynicism. Obvious and true. Don’t get me wrong, I can bitch and moan with the best of them – and some days (on bad days) I do. There is plenty of horror in the world – and that should certainly not be ignored – but I have to look at the sunshine too. Doing that when stuck in The Pit is incredibly hard, and has to be worked at (for which CBT and DBT can be very effective). It does come, though. It is important, and it can get you through the darkest of days.
Mostly, for me, I know that if I allow the negativity, cynicism and darkness to get a foothold in my mind, then I will simply cease to be.
That’s why I spout positivity as if my life depends on it. Because it does.