You Can’t Just Layer Positivity Over a Bad Situation and Call It Good

a person holding a paint roller and painting a wall
Image by Ken Mayer / CC BY

My grandma once told me that if you’re sad that you should just put on bright lipstick and smile.

Her reasoning was more about self-protection than anything else. She said that people would be too busy looking at your lipstick to notice your sadness.

And so you’d avoid the most dreadful states of all: Pity. Or someone attacking you when they know you’re feeling particularly sensitive.

So I tried it. Smiling especially when I felt sad.

It seemed to help a little. (I’d later go on to learn about research that found that even a forced smile can help you better deal with stress.)

And later on, I kicked my efforts to “think positively” into high gear when I took a class from a social worker who taught me the motto “You get what you expect.” Her reasoning: “I’ve been a social worker for over 30 years, and it’s been the one truth that has emerged over and over again. If you’re a miserable person, you get misery. If you’re a positive person, well, things go much better.”

So I smiled even more. Was even more optimistic. More trusting of others and more solidly entrenched in my belief that everything would turn out okay.

The irony of this was that at the time I threw myself into those positivity efforts, I was struggling in a bad marriage. Broke as hell. Playing games with the bills to keep a roof over our head while I finished community college, taking just enough courses to get a good-paying job at the hospital.

It was a tough time. Very stressful.

Smiling and thinking positively did help me get through my coursework. And it helped me not die of embarrassment and dread as I dodged bill collectors, trying to scrape through another week until I could find some money to pay them the minimum amount that it would take to make them go away for a little while longer.

But I couldn’t smile my husband into a person who got along well with me. And I couldn’t smile him into wanting to work together and find a compromise, a way we could both live together and be happy.

I kept smiling as I cried and he yelled. As he left and came back. As I asked him to go to therapy and he agreed but didn’t follow through. As I left and didn’t come back. As he followed me, and I asked him to leave.

I smiled when things were good because I was happy. And I smiled when they were bad because I wanted to be.

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Don’t get me wrong. I still think that it’s good to smile. Have a positive outlook but be realistic. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. That sort of thing.

But you can’t just layer a positive outlook over a bad situation and call it good. Expect your optimism to magically fix everything.

You Don’t Want to Put Down New Paint on a Dirty Wall

A positive outlook is a lot like a fresh coat of paint. Applied correctly, there are few things that can enliven a room as easily as a fresh coat of paint.

But anyone who’s painted a room knows that a lot of the work lies in prep. Because you don’t just start painting. You empty the room. Clean. Lay down drop cloths. Tape molding. Paper windows. Cover anywhere you don’t want paint to go.

And then — perhaps the most important step of all — you wash the walls.

And if the walls are really dirty, you might need to use something like TSP (or a substitute) to strip oil and filth that are clinging to the walls that soap and water won’t touch.

TSP is no joke. You need to wear gloves when you’re using it since it’ll eat away at your skin if you don’t.

And when you deep clean a wall like this, it actually damages the old paint. Makes it look shabby and worse than if you hadn’t cleaned at all.

But it’s only then, when it looks like you may have damaged everything that you’re ready to begin layering on fresh paint. Even then it takes a bit while you are waiting for the walls to dry. And depending on how drastically different the new paint color is, you might need a primer first (like Kilz) to help you do it in fewer coats. Which means that you also have to wait for the primer to dry (and you might need two coats of primer, depending).

And it’s only then that you can put fresh paint on the walls. That’s the moment where things start to look beautiful, after a couple of coats.

Positivity works the same way. It can make everything look much better. But only if you’ve addressed the underlying issues.

And a lot of times, it’ll look even uglier when you’re addressing them.

But it’s important. Because if you paint over a dirty, ugly wall, sure, your walls will be a different color. But the texture will be a mess. Bits of dirt and grime forever sealed into the new paint. It won’t look any better than it did before — and could end up looking even worse.

You can’t just smile your way into having the life you want. A smile can help you cope with stress in the moment, it’s true. But if you’re unwilling to make uncomfortable changes, long term you’re not going to be much better off than you were before.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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