The tyranny of positivity

Our last team meeting of the year is usually a positive affair. It’s the time when the entire team comes together and shares their successes and plans for the future. We talk about how we can support each other’s work and discuss any problems.

 But the entire team is being made redundant in March and so there are no future plans to discuss and no one really felt like celebrating our 2010 achievements. It felt like our successes and hard work didn’t count any more. So instead we invited a colleague to talk about change management. It was a really helpful session and she talked about the tyranny of positive thinking that permeates when bad things happen. Think of the cancer sufferers who declare that they are going to beat the disease through positive thinking alone. Brilliant, if this helps you through a really difficult time but what about if you want to crawl into bed and scream at the world?

 We’re also given corny platitudes when people die. I can’t count the number of ‘he had a good innings’ and ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’ advice I was given when my father died. And I smiled back and nodded while wanting to smack these people in their smug, cheery faces.

 It’s uncomfortable for us to deal with the messy, ugly facts of life so we prefer to create our own happy realities where people fight their diseases, battle through their grievances with a grin and cheerily keep calm and carry on when their lives change.

 It’s the same with the huge cuts we’re facing at the moment. Surely we knew that all the borrowing and lending would end in tears and surely we knew we were spending ourselves into a frenzy of debt? We skipped around in our happy world of credit cards and good employment, cartoon birds tweeting at our shoulders and bunny rabbits signing off our mortgage payments.

 Now I’m losing the job that I love and I’m expected to be positive and cheerful all the time. People say things like, ‘what an amazing opportunity!’ and, ‘something will turn up!’ They may be right and this may be the best thing that ever happened to me but I reserve the right to be fed up and angry sometimes.

 The same colleague who led the change management session has an interesting way of dealing with difficult conversations: she listens carefully without interrupting, tilts her head to one side and says, ‘poor you.’ It shows you’ve listened and empathised without interrupting or offering cheesy platitudes.

 So if you bump into me in a corridor or sit next to me in a meeting, you know what to do.

PS still looking for ideas for that perfect post-redundancy holiday. Join the debate!

9 Responses to The tyranny of positivity

  1. localgov says:

    “Nail head, let me introduce you to hammer…”

    Totally agree, I wish people would be a bit more honest about their feelings from time to time. I don’t want to be surrounded by grumpy people and want to try to stay positive, but that’s for me to do and not others to tell me that I should.

  2. citizenr says:

    Indeed. Today I am mostly feeling cheerful but if I want to sulk, I shall sulk!

  3. Kay Phelps says:

    Really good thing to learn. I quite like the positive thinkers, the ones who make me think differently about a duff situation; but I’m not sure many people have that skill. Lots of people need a tilting head and a ‘poor you’ right now. I’ll try and remember that.

    • citizenr says:

      I’m all for positive thinking but we have to have space for a moan every now and then! We can cheer up the world with a simple ‘poor you.’ Maybe.

  4. Tim says:

    Horses for courses, I think. Some people want the empty platitudes to help them feel better, a few want someone to help them find a ‘solution’, others just want to know that people empathise with their brutal reality. Listening is the most precious gift anyone can offer here – above all, we all just want to be heard – and the best listeners can work out which approach is most likely to work best with individual people.

    Poor you. Get holiday planning!

  5. Pingback: In which I remember what it’s all about … | A redundant public servant's blog

  6. Mean Mr Mustard says:


    An ex CS and one of Redundant Public Servant’s groupies here. Sounds like your Change Manager was quoting from Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book ‘Brightsided’. Being cynical by nature, I was never taken in by the relentless corporate propaganda and thought police to start with, especially in the wider world of encouraging debt and all. Maybe being in a department that was already steadily declining year on year helped me plan ahead too. Despite this I had a boss who was a extroverted cheery optimist, in spite of it all. Guess I’m stuck at Anger, while she’s moved on to Denial.

    • citizenr says:

      Hello Mean Mr. M, glad to have RPS groupies at my blog!I think sometimes denial might be the most comfortable stage. I wish you luck in moving on from anger but it takes time, doesn’t it? I’ve now spent two consecutive days being cheery and it’s quite tiring. I’m working on the ‘fake it till you make it’ principle. Come and visit again and good luck with your own situation.

  7. Pingback: In defence of ‘but’ | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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