Thinking positively about the people in our lives acknowledges that they have flaws and faults which may have an impact on us, and allows us to make informed decisions about how to interact while still choosing to think of them positively. We do this by learning to expect nothing more than what they are capable of, and allowing ourselves the privilege of feeling warmly toward them about that helpful portion, however small it may be. There is no need for anger or frustration about the rest — we no longer expect it of them and trust them to be who they are (even if that means we can’t trust them to be who we’d like them to be). Ultimately, by acknowledging their limitations in this way, we are enabled to take the necessary steps to limit our exposure to them and mitigate our chances of being wounded.
Denial, on the other hand, insists that there are no flaws or faults in our friends or family or coworkers, or that those which do exist are so small and insignificant that we needn’t give them any real attention at all. We may even passively or actively resist that sort of insight from others who try to point it out to us. Because we do not acknowledge faults or flaws or their significance, ironically, we are bound over and over again to find ourselves in a position to be wounded.
Imagine being on the African plain and seeing a pride of lions. You’d be enamored, but you wouldn’t run up to them and tell them that. You have reasonable boundaries with lions, because you acknowledge fully who they are, and that one of their limitations in interacting with humans is that…they’ll kill you if you get too close. But you don’t see this acknowledgment and boundary setting as somehow “not thinking positively” about lions, do you?
We slip into denial when the acknowledgment of someone’s flaws or faults, and the potential need to develop boundaries around those to spare ourselves some injury, is seen as somehow mutually exclusive with thinking positively or warmly of them. You really can acknowledge in full view how limited those about you are, if you are willing to give up your longing for them to be anything other than that. This goes for other things too — institutions, God, etc. When I’m commenting on a person’s or institution’s flaws, people sometimes say to me, “Sounds like you don’t trust him/her/them,” and I say, “No, I do. I trust them to be exactly what they are and to not expect him/her/them to be anything else.”
Why is all of this important? Well, because we’re all deeply flawed in our own way. So, we can’t just make a rule that we’ll never interact with people or systems that injure us, because after a period of time we’ll find ourselves hop-skotching in place with just a single square and no one to play along with. Or we’ll hop on over to a new place only to find ourselves injured by the folks there. Mastering the difference between positive thinking and denial is how we learn to be connected to others — i.e., to be connected to people and systems that have real limitations and problems without constantly being injured by them. And P.S. — it’s how they learn to be connected to us as well.
NOTE: The above should not be construed as an indicator that there are not some people or systems that are abusive, toxic, or otherwise worthy of being totally disconnected from. If you’re having trouble figuring out the difference, ask us for help!
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Ryan Thomas Neace, MA, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, is the founder of Change, Inc., the premier counseling and wellness center of South City, St. Louis, MO. Contact him for counseling at 314-669-6242, or firstname.lastname@example.org.