Can “Positivity” Be Silencing?

Nicole Haran’s “Do Great” video features cancer survivors declaring their desire to hear “you will do great.” Several people forwarded me Ms. Haran’s column about her “Do Great” campaign, which appeared on the Huffington Post blog. Each asked for my thoughts.
I want to commend Ms. Haran for her candor in writing that post and creating a powerful video message. Being positive can serve us well. But watching it I thought of what I’ve learned from patients over the years—namely, that a positive message may not be what everyone in Ms. Haran’s situation is looking for. As a patient once told me, “When somebody is trying to cheer you up—help you feel better—motivate you—tell you it’s going to be okay… that is silencing to me.

What about those who need permission to talk about their fear and anxiety without their emotions being brushed off in the name of “being positive”—isn’t that need just as valid? Positivity might be helpful to some patients and silence others.

There is no right or wrong way to cope with a cancer diagnosis. Ms. Haran happens to want to hear “you will do great.” Her individual message need not be taken as a rule, but can instead be thought of as a prompt for other patients to ask themselves: what do I want to hear? In answering this question for themselves, they can guide  family and friends who wish to be helpful but are not sure what kind of support is needed or wanted.

In my next post I’ll share a rather different angle on this question of “positivity.” In the meantime, I hope readers will share their thoughts about Ms. Haran’s “be positive” campaign.