by: LORRIE GOLDIN, LCSW
The documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. criticizes a breast cancer movement whose feel-good races and pink-bedecked products do more for corporate profit than for health. The film also highlights the downside of positive thinking. Americans favor a can-do attitude. But what if you can't?
Take, for example, the upbeat, war-like rhetoric surrounding breast cancer. When stricken women are depicted as brave warriors fighting a battle for survival, those who "lose the battle" may be viewed as not trying hard enough. Language intended to alleviate a sense of passive victimhood unwittingly becomes a form of blaming the victim. Those who are not feeling "in the pink" are often subtly quarantined--rebuked for bad attitudes or literally dropped from groups if they are terminal--lest the shadow of anger, fear, and death threaten the optimistic atmosphere.
The film suffers from its simplistic bifurcation of people into either corporate shills or corporate dupes. Yet it stimulates reflection about the psychological pinkwashing that permeates our entire culture, including the impact of Positive Psychology, CBT, and medication. I do not mean to dispute the myriad benefits of these developments (just as there are real benefits to aspects of the breast cancer movement). But oversimplified injunctions against negativity too often result in alienation or a sanitized false self. Trouble comes from banning trouble.
I'm reminded of a client who attended a support group that emphasized inspiring success stories. "Erase, then replace," members were advised if they encountered negative thoughts or feelings. After every meeting, my client locked herself in the restroom and cried. "There was no room for the struggle," she lamented.
Few things are as isolating or shameful (or enraging) for people who are prescribed a mega-dose of positive thinking they just can't swallow. Those whose dispositions and/or circumstances make it hard to muster a positive attitude feel not only miserable and even more alone but guilty and trapped by their inability to feel better. Suffering cannot simply be overthrown by a fiat of good cheer.
What if we make room for the struggle? Recall Winnicott's client, who told him that the only time she felt hope was when he agreed with her that it was hopeless but continued the analysis anyway. This is what depth psychotherapists, and anyone who can stomach the totality of experience, do instinctively. We continue anyway. Spirits may be most lifted when all of them--especially the dark ones--are most welcomed.
Lorrie Goldin, LCSW
Impulse Staff Writer