“Dear Loved Ones” #2 – On Staying Positive (or NOT)

By Rob Rutledge September 17, 2018

Wanna get punched in the face? Tell someone with a cancer diagnosis that they should “Stay positive!” I can tell you from our weekend retreats that most people feel that strongly about being told to put on a happy face.

Watch the video: “Stay positive”, NOT

So why do people offer cancer survivors this unhelpful advice? Mostly they really care, and want their loved one to feel better emotionally. Secondly, they believe that ‘staying positive’maximize the chance of recovery (more on this below and in our video blog). Thirdly, they may feel they need to say something, ie they are uncomfortable with silence and need to sooth themselves.

Here is our advice for those on both sides of this exchange:

Family members/friends, remember your role is to be supportive. Let the person with the diagnosis set the tone and content of the conversation. We, humans, need time to process and mourn our losses, and each person’s healing journey will unfold on a different schedule. Typically it takes a full year for most people to adjust to major life changes. So don’t expect someone to be positive on your timeline.

If you want to encourage positivity then wait for the moments when you see it – then use ‘I’ statements like “I like how you said that”, “I love that attitude” or “I really appreciate how you’re looking at that.” Using ‘I’ statements is a great way of sharing your perspective without appearing to tell the other person how to act.

Here’s the exception to this principle (i.e. the rare circumstance where you might offer advice). Imagine an old couple who know of each other so well that it’s like talking to one person when you’re with them. Imagine that one of them has been feeling down and the other has really spent the time listening and being present over a prolonged period – not having to correct the problem right away. Weeks later, at the right moment with the right tone of voice, one may say to the other “Honey, I see that you’ve been really down lately. I worry about you. You’re not even enjoying the grandkids. It would be good for you to lift yourself up again. I’ve seen you do it before. You can do it.” Although this seems patronizing the secret to offering advice is to say it with a deep sense of love and respect – and NOT to expect that your advice will be acted upon.

Advice for those with a diagnosis: Don’t be positive, be authentic (paradoxically a new positivity can arise out of letting go of trying to get it). Allowing the emotions to flow through you is the healthiest way of priming the immune system and your body’s natural healing capacity. Neither suppressing nor acting out emotions (i.e. being mean to others). Claim your feelings with the “I” statements. For example, can say or think “I feel crappy right now” “I’m feeling down in this moment”. “Anxiety is coming up”. Talk about it. Express it. Then let it go by reframing the thoughts that are driving the emotions.

In addition to being present to what’s happening in your body and mind in the moment, you can also watch the overall pattern of your emotional life over a period of time. By identifying big picture you can start to create a plan to facilitate healing and to help yourself feel better. Ask yourself what activities promote emotional wellness for you? Where does exercise fit in? Quiet time? Journaling? Support groups? Art therapy? Talking with your friends? Maybe you need to have a ‘pity party’ every morning before setting your intention to fully cherish the rest of the day. Experiment and watch the patterns.

Lastly, don’t expect that you’re going to feel better immediately or that the difficult emotional states won’t arise again. The only guarantee is that your needs (and therefore your strategies) will change over time. And you can embrace all of your emotions as a natural part of being human.

“What to say when”

So instead of punching your boss in the face when they say “stay positive” you can say something like “Thanks for that. Yeah, good days, tough days. I can’t always be positive. But I’ll get through this”.

Other possible responses to those closer to you:

  1. “I’m not sure I can stay positive. I find it’s more helpful to be authentic.
  2. Now, honey, I don’t like it when I feel I’m being told how to act. I find it stressful to try to be positive all the time.
  3. Stay positive!?! I get really upset when people tell me to stay positive. This is a hard time for me. I don’t want to have to act a certain way in front of my loved ones. It’s going to take time for me to get back on my feet.

Last point: Please have compassion for yourself and others as you negotiate your way through these sensitive issues.

Please send in your comments and questions– and your stories of what you said or did when told to ‘be positive’. I’d love to keep the conversation going.


Dr. Rob Rutledge

Oncologist, Nova Scotia Cancer Centre

Associate Professor, Dalhousie University

CEO / Chair of HealingandCancer.org


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