Sometimes, we see looking on the bright side as infuriating, especially if we’re going through a tough time.
However, as psychotherapist Genesis Games, LMHC, pointed out, “Looking at the bright side is not negating the pain, hurt, and despair. Some situations are truly heartbreaking and beyond difficult.”
Rather, it’s about not letting painful or traumatic experiences define us and negatively shape our lives, said Games, who specializes in working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with relationship issues, breakups, addiction, and life transitions in Miami, Fla.
It’s about “tak[ing] our power back.”
When we look on the bright side, we aren’t sugarcoating a situation, said Bonnie Compton, APRN, BC, CPNP, a child and adolescent therapist and parent coach. Instead, we don’t want to be stuck, or “give any more negative energy to the situation.”
Most of us tend toward negative thinking. It’s just how humans are built (and how some of us were bred). Focusing on the dangers is how we defend ourselves and stay safe. But taking up residence in that space also can paralyze us, lead us to overlook opportunities, and stop us from building and living a fulfilling life.
Below, Games and Compton shared seven realistic suggestions for looking on the bright side—which don’t feel fake or forced.
Embrace your emotions, while moving forward. Again, looking on the bright side isn’t about ignoring what exists, particularly inside our hearts. Which is why Games stressed the importance of identifying and feeling all your emotions—without judging them.
“All emotions are valid”—even when they seem to contradict each other. “[M]ultiple, often conflicting, emotions can co-exist at once,” she said.
So, we can feel a variety of emotions, and we can also move on. Genesis shared these examples of statements you might tell yourself: “This is unfair and it hurts, and it also gives me the opportunity to do ______,” and “This hurts and will hurt for a while, and [I also can] reinvent myself.”
Engage in physical activities. “Movement helps release the tension emotions create in our bodies,” Games said. In a way, movement helps to prime our bodies for the bright side. It triggers feel-good endorphins and channels our emotions into positive action.
For instance, Games said, you might practice yoga, go for a jog, dance, or take a kickboxing class. Think about the movement your body is currently craving, and choose that.
Fast forward. In the moment, when we’re in the midst of painful emotions—guilt, shame, sadness, sorrow, embarrassment—certain situations can feel unbearable. It can feel like these situations and our feelings will last forever.
But most won’t—a fact that Compton suggested we remind ourselves of. With that, she also suggested we ask ourselves this question: “How important will this be in 5 days, [5 weeks, 5 months], 5 years?“
Become a detective. Looking on the bright side can be playful. Think of yourself as an investigator, scientist, or journalist looking for the smallest of wonders. Look up. Look down. Look closer. Look at everything with fresh, new eyes. Your surroundings. Your objects. Your interactions with others. Get curious, and let yourself be amazed by even the tiniest of gestures and things.
Maybe you even make this into a daily habit, challenging yourself to find one or five small wonders to appreciate. If you have kids, you can do this as a family.
Refocus your energy. Put that energy toward “what you do have the power to change,” Games said. She shared this example: You took the LSAT and scored below average, and naturally you’re really upset. “The reality is that despite how you feel about it or what you think about the exam, you did not do as well as you need to.” However, focusing on how the exam is a scam or that you don’t perform well on standardized tests isn’t helpful— “because you can’t change the structure of the exam and the truth is some people are just gifted when it comes to standardized tests.”
But you can focus on how you prepare for your next LSAT: “You can try new study methods, take courses, find a tutor, devote more time [to studying], [and] learn strategies to manage your test-taking anxiety…You can feel frustrated, disappointed, and anxious, while also taking the aforementioned steps to improve your score.”
Play devil’s advocate. Games encouraged readers to challenge and reframe fatalistic beliefs. The key is that the new belief resonates with you. She shared these examples:
- “Bad things always happen to me” can become “Good and bad things happen to everyone.”
- “I don’t deserve good things” or “I don’ deserve to be happy” can become “There is no valid reason why I should condemn myself to unhappiness or sabotage when good things come my way.”
- “I am not lovable” can become “I am lovable because I am human.”
- “Everyone I love leaves me” can become “Some people we love will leave us, but some will stay. I have the inner strength to cope when those I love leave me.”
Get outside of yourself. This could include volunteering or working on a creative project that brought you joy in the past, such as painting or even playing with playdough, said Compton, author of the book Mothering with Courage: The Mindful Approach to Becoming a Mom Who Listens More, Worries Less, and Loves Deeply.
It also could mean getting outside and connecting to nature. For instance, you might take several slow, deep breaths and look up at the sky, Compton said. “If it’s cloudy, [remind] yourself that above the dark clouds, the sun is still there and will appear once again,” she said (perhaps a metaphor for your current situation).
All of these activities help to shift your attention, energy, and mindset.
Looking on the bright side can feel fake when we throw around clichés like “It will all be OK,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Good vibes only,” Games said.
However, when we choose to reframe our perspective, what we’re really doing is supporting and energizing ourselves. What we’re really doing is moving forward and giving ourselves the space to cope effectively and healthfully. What we’re really doing is acknowledging the pain, and telling ourselves, This is hard, and it will heal.