The Tyranny of the Positive

A while back I watched a couple of videos and found them really helpful. Someone recently mentioned to me the phrase “the tyranny of the positive” in a comment I remembered those videos and thought I’d share them.

They are both clips from psychologists who have done loads of research work behind these ideas.

Basically the common theme is that sometimes people try to help us with the “at least it’s not as bad as X” type of statements. Or perhaps the “cheer up and be more positive” type of statements, or maybe, "I promise you everything is definitely going to be just fine"

These kind of statements can be so infuriating to someone who is really suffering since they seem to diminish the pain we are feeling. And they can devalue us, making us feel the person doesn’t care about us.

A desire for everyone to just be happy and be positive can be understandable. And yet when CLL is demolishing our lives why should we rejoice? And if our friends and family make like it really isn’t that big of a deal well it can be very hurtful and as one of the videos show we just tend to not bother talking to those people about how we feel any more.

Sometimes we don’t want cheering up. We don’t want pat answers. We don’t want to be told “it will be alright for sure”. We don’t want to be told our emotions are negative and should be fought against or denied.

At times the best thing a friend can do is simply be with us and not talk at all. In the ancient book of Job (found in the Bible) when disaster struck him his friends came and sat with him quietly for days. They showed him compassion by doing so. It was only by opening their mouths that they started causing trouble! You don’t have to be religious to relate to just wishing your friends or family wouldn’t say anything sometimes! These videos are not religious at all but seem to make a similar point.

Of course our friends can say useful things to us. But there is often a time when we just want our emotions to be heard; to be understood, to be seen.

And we need to be kind to ourselves too

We need sometimes to just say something like “Ah yes I see I am feeling sad / anxious / depressed / angry today. And I can see why. These feelings will come and go. They are not bad of themselves. But I will choose not to be dominated by them. And yes, I will remind myself of reasons to be grateful. And yes I hope to watch these emotions waft away. But for now this is how I feel and I’m not going to apologise for it or deny it or try to pretend to myself that I don’t. And whilst I won’t show these emotions to everyone, if I can find a safe space to share them with someone I will.

Much much more to say about the. But check out these two very brief but helpful videos

The first is called “How to help a friend in grief” and makes the point that trying to simply cheer someone up is often really damaging. We can’t heal someone’s pain by trying to take it away from them.

Pain desires acknowledgement. It wants to be seen and heard. And by allowing someone to feel sad we do ultimately help them to feel better, just not as quickly as we often want in our instant quick fix society.

If it takes you two years or more to “get over” a diagnosis of CLL so be it. And in fact who says you have to “get over” it at all or that life can or should ever go back to exactly the same way it was before.

We sometimes need desperately for someone to understand that things really do feel bad for us, and just that process of being heard stops us from feeling so alone. No wonder we benefit from being in this group where others genuinely do understand what we are going through.

Watch this charmingly simple but profound video here:

The second video is a brief TED talk on Emotional courage. It explicitly discusses this idea of the Tyranny of the Positive.

Here’s a couple of quotes from the transcript to whet your appetite “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others . . . Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator – the more you try to ignore it the greater its hold on you. You might think you’re in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you. Internal pain always comes out. Always. And who pays the price? We do. Our children, our colleagues, our communities.”

Watch the rest here:

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Hi Adrian, you have obviously spent a lot of time researching your post. Yes, I get annoyed when people say what I feel is unhelpful to me, but now I just think they have not had training on what I would like them to say in the circumstances. The problem I have is who can I really share my honest fears, thoughts and feelings. My answer is with people who really understand and they are my buddies on this community forum.


Dear Adrian, I’m really glad you raised this subject as it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. My blood cancer is now classified as being terminal so no amount of positivity is going to effect the outcome, even though I am not a negative by nature. I have actually stopped discussing my prognosis with people now and that includes other cancer patients as it is a instant buzz kill. I have been made to feel a failure because I can’t be cured and despite my best efforts cannot get people to understand all I want is to be treated normally whilst I’m still here. Just recently I have started to become angry about this treatment especially at the hands of other blood cancer patients who should know better. If I can accept my prognosis with good grace then so should everyone else and just allow me to speak freely and not have to lie about how ill I am. apologies for having a rant but I just wanted to get it off my chest.
Best wishes alfie

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Adrian, when I was at teacher training college more years ago than I care to remember, I studied Job as part of my theology course. I can srill picture Olive, our lecturer, talking so earnestly about the sufferings of Job, and over the past month those teachings have been coming back to me. There must be a reason! What I appreciate most is the friends who treat me as Louise, and quietly make changes in arrangements so that I can still belong, booking outings in quieter venues so that I stand a chance of hearing some of the conversation, getting a taxi rather than using buses, and a hug speaks volumes.
Last week I went for a bra fitting and the assistant was being sorely tested by two women and their families. When I had completed my purchase I thanked her for her help. She turned and gave me a huge hug. Just a thought, a hug, being present or a word of thanks can mean so much.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us


Hi Louise, @Adrian and @Alfie, yes, isn’t it lovely to be just ‘Erica’ and not ‘Erica with leukaemia’ and I believe the behaviours of others to us is like how it is described when you are bereaved and actually we are because as we are experiencing so many losses from diagnosis to prognosis. I had to laugh at your story, Louise, I bet you are the first person to buy a bra and get a free hug. I really want someone, apart from someone on this site, who would just be able to be with me while I share my fears, thoughts and feelings and perhaps not say anything and certainly not try and take my feelings away from me and fix me, oohhh, and a big hug would certainly not go amiss. When I ask someone in the service industry how they are or say thank you they often look so surprised and are so grateful. A virtual hug to you all.


Erica, I think she was just so overcome that I hadn’t given her a hard time (apart from having to ask her to repeat everything because of kids running about in changing rooms and music) I hope you are well. Back to GP tomorrow and gynae on Wednesday. Life is grand 10yrs post SCT :joy:


So glad you felt you could get things off your chest. I don’t think there is a single blood cancer patient who haven’t had the thought “I might die sooner than I hoped” at least cross their mind or become a too welcome bedfellow. It’s the desire to push that thought away for themselves that probably makes some find it too much to cope with when another brings up their difficult prognosis as you describe. Sometimes doctors do get their estimates wrong, and I do hope you can find a way to both make the best of the time you do have and perhaps even be fortunate enough to be with us longer than expected. If it would help to share more about your thoughts on how you came to this acceptance I’m sure it may be of benefit to others. We all know we could face a similar situation for example if a chronic slow growing blood cancer suddenly transforms into a really acute one. Different things help different people. Is there anything you’d feel able to share that has helped you?


I once got a free hug from a stranger who found my crying amongst a crowd of commuters! It was before my diagnosis actually but the memory of it restores my faith in humanity.


Dear Adrian, I agree with everything you say in your post, peoples attitudes towards death operate at a visceral level and logic sometimes goes out the window. When I was initially diagnosed I did as much research into my disease as I could and it became clear that even with novel treatments overall survival was measured in months not years, I accepted this as my brain is too logical not to, a small glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a possible sct but never transpired due to heart damage from chemotherapy, as this was the only proven treatment to increase overall survival I had to accept facts once again, and then the final confirmation when I relapsed almost immediately after my induction treatment. So this is the reality of my daily life, spend every day in denial or use my energies to make happy memories for my husband. All I ask is that there be more than one narrative surrounding cancer of the plucky fighter and positive thinker and spare a thought for the ones who aren’t going to make it no matter what we do, logically it won’t effect what happens to you but as I have said some people operate at the level of myth and superstition and prefer not to have this protective bubble burst. I know of many people who though not terminal have been cut off completely by friends so the reaction to someone like me is probably just on a spectrum of irrational behaviour. Thank you for being interested in my point of view it has made me feel listened to and I’m sure I will benefit from your kindness.

Best wishes

Alfie, female 56 .


Alfie bless you for being so open and honest and sharing your heart. In fact your story sounds so inspirational especially with your determination to live your remaining days for another. That selflessness and investment in someone you love is what makes human beings so amazing. I find myself admiring you and I can see why people might want to see you as incredibly strong. And I can also see why you in your humility would say that you actually don’t feel like you are strong or a “fighter”. Blood cancers are cruel things and as we know are still the third most common cancer killer. Doctors and the blood cancer community are fighting back (though you quite rightly don’t need to feel pressure to fight given your situation) and we are seeing great advances in treatment but far too many people are still cut down way too early with this. I hope that through your faith if you have one, or philosophy of life, and through the support of those in your life who can cope with your situation, with this forum, and perhaps by phoning the excellent blood wise helpline you will continue to find some comfort.

You have no idea how much reading your words might help someone else. I am so grateful that despite the ongoing issues I have relates to blood cancer at least at the moment mine is under control. Realising again that other people face right now a challenge I may well face in the moment makes me appreciate all the more the day I have been given today and want to make the best of it. This day today is actually all ANY of us can be sure of. And somehow many avoid that reality. I hope to, inspired by you, make today count and live for the good of those around me.

Thank you once again for sharing.


Dear Adrian, thank you for kind words.
Best wishes

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Thank you for sharing this post Adrian, and the feelings it brought up for you.

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