"Think Positive"

In the first class I took towards a Master of Arts in Professional Counseling, the teacher spoke to us about how counselors should not give advice to clients because, amongst other reasons, it is not helpful. This was a statement that has been repeated many times during my education. Instead a counselor should attempt to see the world through the client’s eyes and use empathy to convey understanding. In giving advice, the counselor would be leading the client to think that the counselor is an expert who knows how to solve the client’s problems better than he does. Instead the client should be seen as someone who is an expert on his life who can solve his own problems with assistance. The counselor may help the client explore other options and possible consequences, but the client holds the ability and responsibility in making his own decisions.

Having chronic illness has given me many lessons concerning how it feels to be given advice. When I tell people I have frequent migraine attacks that prevent me from working, many people give well meaning advice about methods I might use to stop the migraine attacks. Many include possible treatments, supplements, et cetera. I appreciate these sorts of advice giving because although my doctors and I have tried a wide variety of treatments, I know there are many I do not know of that I can try. I am willing to try most anything.

There is, of course, some well-meaning advice I am not so appreciative of. My least favorite is “think positive.” My first reaction when I hear this is to bite my tongue to prevent vitriol from spilling out of my mouth. I realize my strong reaction and my subsequent emotional tailspin is unreasonable, but please humor me while I list some of my thoughts after I hear the “think positive” epithet.

Someone telling me to think positive raises my defenses and makes me think anything but positive. I find this recommendation to be frustrating. When a person says this to me, I feel like the person does not begin to understand what it is like to have a chronic illness. Does the person honestly believe that if I think I am not going to get migraines that I would stop having them? I so wish this was true. Dozens of times, I have tried a new treatment believing this would be the one that helped, only to find it made no difference whatsoever. I wonder if the person thinks that in three and a half years, I have been seeing 5 migraine specialists (yes, doctors who treat nothing but headaches and migraines) and trying everything from medications, physical therapy, counseling, biofeedback, and changes in diet, amongst other things, all the while believing none of them would work. Do they think I have just been wandering around spending thousands of dollars on treatment I never believed would help? For example, the current specialist I see is a four hour drive each way. I would not drive eight hours in one day to see a doctor if I did not believe he would help me. I have even largely given up carbohydrates to try to stop the headaches. Believe me, I would never give up bread, ice cream, grapes, strawberries, and pizza if I did not believe it might help my headaches. Yes, as you can so clearly see, I am quite frustrated that so many treatments have done nothing to reduce the number of migraines I experience. Yes, it is a great struggle sometimes to be optimistic and think positive when dozens of treatments have not worked, but I do try.

I naturally realize the people advising me to “think positive” probably do not think any of my suppositions. These suppositions are mine and say a heck of a lot about my own thoughts than anyone else’s. But I think the point is valuable: giving unsolicited advice may have the opposite affect than we intended. When people now say “think positive”, I attempt to try to stop my diatribe above and step back to consider the person’s intentions. The people certainly mean no harm and only want to help. It can be uncomfortable when someone talks about a chronic illness they have. Maybe they say “think positive” to try to offer some hope. Or maybe they wish to convey that they hope I will hang in there and continue to try treatments because something is bound to work. I am happy to report that it appears something finally has worked! I will talk more about it in another post.


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