Back in the early 1990’s there was a store in the mall called Successories. The retailer is still in business today, although now exclusively online. In those days of ‘hanging out at the mall’, you could not only grab a pretzel and a lemonade while you window-shopped Benetton and Swatch, you could also walk into the Successories store and be enmeshed in pink cloud language. Surrounded with brightly colored, powerful photographic images on black backgrounds and a white-lettered quote, the images and sayings adorned posters, desk plaques, magnets, mugs, and more.
My personal favorite was the quote “You can complain because the rose has thorns or rejoice that the thorns have roses.”
That felt really right. Really right.
I didn’t have a lot of extra money back then but I think I might have bought a little desk photo cube with that saying on it (for the desk I didn’t have).
I determined the problem wasn’t the thorny parts, it was that people just kept talking about them. I was sure I complained too much, and I just needed to shift my perspective. Of course things were hard – there were thorns – in fact, sometimes it felt like there were too many thorns painfully sticking my body like I was caught in the brush of the now discontinued (for good reason!) Briar Rabbit/Briar Bear cartoon. But who wanted to hear that? Be party to that? Date that? Hang out and grab pretzels and lemonade at the mall with that? Nope – I just needed to find my roses.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but a poster in the mall in the early 1990’s was pivotal in the kind of self-talk I would engage in about struggling, about feeling down, about trauma itself. In fact, as recently as a few years ago, that saying would pop into my mind as a response to my frustrations and legitimate complaints about those painful thorns.
We’ve been conditioned this way. It’s not just a mall thing; certainly not a ‘Successories’ thing (my organizational psychology background will say that the graphic and quote idea is actually a strong approach to driving workplace culture), and I don’t think it’s even a media thing – although every story we’ve seen having a ‘happy ending that worked out for the best’ doesn’t help - This is a cultural phenomenon particularly pervasive among Americans, especially those with more meager means. We’re taught repeatedly that we just have to ‘be grateful for what we have’ and that we must always, always focus on ‘the bright side.’ It’s almost a magic trick that feels a lot like ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’. Ignore the thorns, ignore the thorns, ignore the thorns…
So what’s wrong with that?
More than just a little bit, actually. In addition to feeding a systemically imbalanced thought process that keeps those with less happy with crumbs while power-mongers eat the whole loaf of bread, participating in ‘pink cloud’ or ‘toxic positivity’ talk (even, and maybe especially when it’s self-talk) compounds the complexity of navigating trauma. The language we use has great power, but it won’t actually stop us from feeling our emotions, it will simply stop us from expressing them. Being told over and over, ‘You should just be grateful.’ will not make you feel grateful. Instead, it will make you feel guilty that you don’t feel grateful. It's a diminishing phrase that is met to shame negative emotions into submission. And it usually works – at the price of creating pain, stagnating growth, and fostering resentment.
I remember having to write these ‘letters of explanation’ to random landlords when trying to secure housing after my DV case was resolved in the courts. I was forced into this uncomfortable disclosure and justification about how I wasn’t irresponsible, or unreliable, and I had lost my home and my credit rating due to domestic violence. I had to tell a stranger intimate details in hopes of being given a chance at decent housing for my children and I. It was humiliating. It was enraging. And the most common response from the few friends I disclosed this process to was ‘But you’ve survived this far. You are so lucky just to be here.’ I didn’t feel ‘lucky’. I felt exposed; I felt shorted. I had owned my homes for over 15 years and now, here I was, begging for the opportunity to rent from a stranger with this horribly personal disclosure just so I could get past the screening process. But instead of saying that, I nodded along that yes, I was just so lucky. It all could have been so much worse. I should just be grateful…
Inside, I was on fire. Screaming and crying that it wasn’t fair, silently to myself. The thorns hurt; they just kept hurting, and I felt I had to pretend that I was ok. Not surprisingly, I was often physically ill. I had throat ulcers, stomach problems, and a couple of very serious and odd illnesses. I was literally swallowing my thorns and presenting roses to everyone. Every platitude: every reference to it being ‘met to be’ so I would be here now, every statement that I had only been given what I could handle, and every depersonalized reference in an introduction (“She’s the DV victim I told you about), drove me further from the autonomy I needed to recover.
I want to be clear, in case you’ve said these things to others yourself (many, many of us have), that I know the intention of these words was good. We don’t know what to say to someone who has profound loss, whose life has taken a dramatic turn, or who has been hurt. No one tells us how to respond and so we do the best we can. Every single person who responded to me genuinely wanted me to feel better and had no idea that their words weren’t able to do that. They truly met well. If you’ve done it, I know you’ve truly met well also.
But when we know better, we can do better. So, no more roses if you need to feel your thorns. No more little pink clouds. In short – you deserve a lot more than platitudes – than crumbs – than little pink clouds. You are entitled to feel whatever you do and have it honored as legitimate and not getting that is actually harming you. So instead, use language (internally and externally) that accepts exactly the emotions you or your person is feeling. Empower, give agency, personalize, honor.
Still not sure how? Download my quick reference guide to Trauma-Informed Language here. https://adept-mover-1306.ck.page/mtgtraumainformed
It includes 20 phrases to avoid, 12 to use instead and the reasons why. Want more personalized training for yourself or your group? Reach out to me and we can talk about coaching, workshops, and speaking opportunities – maybe over pretzels and lemonade.