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The Downside of Looking at the Upside

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One of the tritest phrases in the English language is “look for the silver lining.” As in “yes, the stock market wiped out our retirement savings, but the silver lining is that I still have my health so I can work until I’m eighty.” Or, “True, my husband cheated on me, but the silver lining is that at least he didn’t cheat on me with someone like that woman from ‘Fatal Attraction.’” Or, a personal favorite that I actually heard with my own ears: “I know he stole the client from me and stabbed me in the back, but the silver lining is at least I’m assisting him on the account.” True story, from my days contracting at PR firms in San Diego. The girl who said it was a wide-eyed, sweet-souled junior account exec who by now has either saved her sanity (and that sweet soul) and abandoned the PR field altogether, or has in the intervening years shaken off the mantle of optimism and replaced it with clear-eyed, hard-edged realism (in other words, she has since thrown offending client-snatcher under the bus.)

Until very recently, I have been the master of looking for the silver lining. Always. In every single situation. When the walls crumbled around me, I’ve been the one to say, “Well, hey, yeah, I know life is caving in on us, but working together to rebuild it will bring us closer.” I’ve been that benighted-eyed optimist who refuses to let “stuff” get me down. The Annie of attitude. Perhaps even annoyingly so (one of my dearest friends, who loves me and knows me best, has said that on more than one occasion).

But over time. I’ve started to alter my perspective a bit. It’s been more than the economic meltdown (which to be fair, with the stock market nearing the 10,000 mark again, may be on the beginning of a recovery—of course, we’d sold much of our piddling remaining stock we had prior to the upswing, natch), or even my wild overindulgence in volunteering, which left me feeling slightly dizzy and almost hung-over with do-gooder-ness. It’s more been the dawning realization that my tendency to always look at the bright side of life was in part a way for me to hide my true feelings about a particular situation. I’ve realized that looking at the silver lining isn’t always the right thing to do. Sometimes seeing and acknowledging that a situation has gone awry is what you need to do.

By immediately jumping on the “let’s think positive” I’ve been denying myself the opportunity to feel the disappointment or frustration that was inside. I felt bad about being angry. As if anger was a nasty boil that needed to be lanced, less someone see me angry and—gasp!—think bad of me.

I’m not advocating embracing anger and beating everyone over the head with it. That’s no way to solve any problem. That just alienates people and makes you look a little off-balance. But what I am saying is that it is okay to feel anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and not force yourself to gloss over your feelings, as if those emotions had no validity. Those emotions can give you clarity, whereas denying them will only give you ulcers.

I know of what I speak. The last month has been a trying one. In fact, the whole year has been—I can’t remember ever hoping so fervently that the year would just hurry up and end, as if by changing the calendar from 2009 to 2010 will magically change circumstances. I’ve told myself hundreds of times over the last months, “Look on the bright side!” and “Everything’ll work out.” And that ol’ chestnut, “Everything happens for a reason.” And of course the ever-wise “It’s all good.”

So if that was so “all good,” why did I end up one day collapsing on the kitchen floor, hugging my dog and crying hysterically, all because I broke a casserole dish? Obviously, my “out-of-the-blue” crying attack was more than the dish that had slipped from my hand. It was then I realized that faking it might fool some people—but not the people who knew me well. And I especially couldn’t fool myself, at least not for long. My poor dog. She’d probably thought I’d lost my mind.

I’m still the generally positive person I’ve always been, but I have been allowing myself to feel the emotions—disappointment, frustration—I’ve been holding at bay for so long. At least a little. I’ve found that these emotions have galvanized me to take the initiative to get myself into a better situation, rather than wait, look for the silver lining, and hope everything will get better. So I guess … I’m being positive about being … negative? Not really. But at least, at last, I’m being realistic.


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