What Does It Really Mean to Have a Good Attitude?

If you had to define the word attitude, would you explain it as a settled state or something flexible? 

Most dictionary definitions appear to explain it as something that is closer to being set, remaining the same. We hear people say, That person always has a great attitude, or He is known for his bad attitude.

However, my experience leads me to believe that attitude is not a pre-programmed response when things impact you. 

You aren’t on auto-pilot where attitude is concerned; it is more a proactive choice you make when you decide how you want to respond to something.

Don’t we all have the power to control our attitude? 

Just as we can choose to move through life with a bad attitude, we also have the power to decide to move through life with a positive attitude.

Don’t think I am advocating for that form of toxic positivity we have all experienced. Although I work on keeping a positive attitude in the face of tough situations, I have been the recipient of poisonous positivity, and trust me, it leaves a very bitter taste.

Toxic positivity is dished out by people—and we have all met them– who trot out positive platitudes regardless of what you are going through. It leaves you feeling as though you are not allowed to experience your emotions. How dare you feel frightened or anxious? You just need to pull yourself together!

When my teenage son was fighting cancer, a certain phrase made me want to pelt the speaker with dirty gym socks. Everything happens for a reason.

These five simple words left me feeling as though my fears and dreads were not valid, possibly even silly, because, well, you know, there was a perfectly sound reason why he had become so ill. If only I would pull myself together, slap a smile on my face, and wait until this magical reason became apparent, then there would be no need to experience that crippling fear. Just buck up and rest easy, safe in the knowledge that there was, well, you know, a reason!

This toxic positivity expects that, no matter how dire a situation is, you should maintain a positive mindset. Toxic indeed.

Another saying people tie to attitude goes along the lines: Happiness is a choice. He is always so unhappy, but you know (wise nod of the head) happiness is a choice. 

Again, I believe that we can choose how we respond, but this doesn’t mean that someone who is utterly miserable or desperate chooses to be miserable. Of course, they don’t.

The more I think about this word, attitude, the more I accept it is both slippery and complicated. 

A wise friend of mine recently shared a quote by Bob Bitchin: Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure. 

There was something simple about this that drew me in. It tied back to my thoughts about attitude being a proactive choice you make when you decide how you want to respond to a situation—be it an ordeal or ideal.

We have all lived through ghastly situations. No adult can escape experiencing at least one truly horrible time in their life, but we can decide how we will move forward. Can you have a good attitude even though you acknowledge the dreadfulness of the situation? 

I think you can maintain a positive attitude while still being fully aware that things are far from perfect.

Maybe we can start by examining how we speak to ourselves, sometimes called self-speak, which is the inner voice that mutters away in the background.

By constantly reminding yourself how awful the situation is, you lessen your chance of seeing even a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. 

Again, when my son was ill, there was no doubt how serious the situation was, but I chose (there is that word again) to speak to myself in positive, hopeful ways. I carried this attitude into my conversations with others I spoke to.

This translated to him as well, which I believe had a positive outcome. I wasn’t blindly adopting a sunny disposition, but I framed it in a reassuring way while still acknowledging my darkest fears.

We need to let others own their emotions, simply respect where they are and acknowledge their feelings without trying to fix anything. And, we need to chose how we move forward. 

I wish I could say that I am crystal clear on this topic, but I think it will remain a thought-in-progress.

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2 comments on “What Does It Really Mean to Have a Good Attitude?
  1. Maria Oskwarek says:

    Jane, you make so many valid and valuable points. Toxic positivity masquerades as helpfulness, but it is anything but helpful. Dismissing another person’s feelings is never helpful. I appreciate the last sentence of this piece. Attitudes, emotions, and circumstances are often nuanced and it’s refreshing to recognize that reality.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thank you, Maria. Recognizing that few things in life are clear-cut comes with embracing the self-awareness to accept the uncertainty.

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