Home > Grief, Health, Love, Parenting > The Unicorn of Replenishment [is not real]

The Unicorn of Replenishment [is not real]

This post was inspired (in part) by my just-younger sister’s
post, “Unsought Advice.” Silver Star is working her fingers to the bone,
leaving me wishing I were closer in space to help share some of her load with her.

A couple of months ago, someone I hold dear sobbed about extremely distressing life circumstances she’s having a hell of a time escaping. As she sobbed, she told me people around her counsel her to “just be more positive” as if positivity is not a tool but itself the cure to all ailments.

I spent twenty or thirty minutes telling her where I thought those people could shove it and, in order of importance, why.

I was actually pretty eloquent then, but it was eloquence born of impassioned advocacy.

Tonight, I just want to briefly reflect on how positivity alone doesn’t cure anxiety, poverty, PTSD, or a million other ailments that took days, months, or years doing unspeakable damage to their targets before someone suggested they “just try positivity.”

Let’s imagine one woman’s exhaustion level as liquid in a mug. For each missed day of pay, subtly veiled workplace threat received, or snub from her distant spouse, the tiredness level in her mug rises a little.


In the best of circumstances, life throws her not only losses but healing resources. These suck the tiredness from her mug: a friend who consistently sits with her while she sobs, and who also helps her step toward something better, a manager who understands kids get sick, a partner who reliably steps in and says, “Here, let me get some of that.”

Many people are fortunate to spend their time walking around with cups of tiredness closer to empty than they may consciously realize. They have solid support systems, relatively stable finances, and plenty of replenishing resources to help suck dry the puddles of tired that accumulate in their mugs.

Others have some resources, but they’re fewer and more sporadic. For every little bit of exhausting circumstance such a person faces–unplanned illness, a best friend who moved across the country and can no longer be a pillar, reduced hours and thus reduced pay, her child’s day care closing–her mug of tiredness inches closer to the top.


If she’s lucky, she’s somehow able to find enough positive resources to keep her tiredness from spilling over. If she’s not lucky, exhausting circumstance flies at her faster and faster while positive ones are intermittent or unpredictable. Her mug of exhaustion spills over.


When her mug spills over, the errant hostile word that once might have just been a little tiring is suddenly a reminder that life is an exhausting well of insurmountable hardship. Each bounced check and the resulting cascade of penalty fees shouts, “You are failing! You are failing in every way possible!” Every “I never!” or “What kind of mother are you?!” from a passing stranger or acquaintance is a quarter-cup addition to a mug that no longer feels like it’ll ever be manageable again.

When someone says, “Just try positivity!” there’s a pretty good chance she’s speaking with a mug of bone-tired not only dry but squeaky clean. She can’t imagine–or can’t remember–what it was like to live praying she could just keep going long enough to finally get survival in check, the better to maybe someday get back to the business of actually living.

In writing blogs and writing forums, writers advise each other to show, not tell. In real life, rather than punching positivity promotion in the throat, I’d like to gently offer the same counsel.

Saying the words “be positive!” alone is like telling a grieving person “at least your loved one [is at peace/is in heaven/died surrounded by love]!” No matter how well intentioned, these words add grief upon grief, signaling to the griever that she has not only lost someone much beloved … but also friends who once spoke deep and true, who now speak only in cliches.

Demonstrating the light of love, on the other hand, is to living positivity what showing is to writing: it is the exemplifying, not the mere saying. It is the shining brightly, not the description of what shining looks like to someone who can no longer quite imagine the light. It is the offering to absorb some of the exhaustion, instead of telling someone she should work harder to find the Unicorn of Replenishing in the twenty seconds she has to herself before falling into fitful sleep after each day’s grind.

So how does a person show-not-tell in the pages of life outside the bounds of any book or blog? To start:

Don’t say there are bricks at a shop across town. Drive there with your friend, and help her lay a new foundation!

Don’t gesture vaguely at a ladder and walk away. Stand at its base and help keep it steady for her!

Don’t say the word “love.” Show love!

It’s in the showing,
not the speaking,
that exhaustion
by the possibility
of “tired” that ends
and “love”
that is more
than words.

  1. March 26, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    What a great post, and it was shown so perfectly! And how I can relate to your friend. My heart goes out to her. I’m big on hand holding and moving hair back from crying eyes. It is a simple but caring gesture that my Gma passed on to me.
    Your friend is so blessed that you understand the importance of showing love, care, compassion.

    • March 26, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      Some of the stuff that moves me most is stuff I can’t write about here, so that I struggle with how to capture unidentifiable strands of it. In this case, another post I read this evening (editing my post to incorporate it, with consent!) reminded me of how this one was already bubbling up. I remember how people told me my mom would’ve had a better life if she’d made better choices, and how incredulous I was: “Wait, so the solution to her struggles is to build and correctly utilize a time machine?!” That’s how I feel about positivity messaging now: that it reflects errant, magnified attention to one tiny piece of the puzzle … that itself solves nothing.

      I know a few people who just genuinely seem to like wallowing in sucktitude. I feel bad for ’em, but know it’s not my responsibility to fix them or their lives. But for those I see working so hard they’re grinding their fingers to nubs while being told the solution is in their mindset (’cause mindset pays the bills these days!), I wish I could do more.

      I try to do what I can within my limitations, until I occasionally end up sitting at my computer wishing I had a more effective way to promote change than small acts of love and hope coupled with even smaller words on my computer screen.

      I’m grateful for your kind words, and for the acts you touch on here. I don’t think I understood until very, very recently how important touch is to healing … and how my mom’s affection helped mitigate the terrible impacts of an otherwise extremely stressful childhood. Loving touch does so, so very much.

  2. March 26, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    I have Major Depression and Generally Anxiety Disorder. Even the Neurologist noticed how severe it was in the hallway, walking past people. But just talking in CBT, Anger Management, Mindfulness, etc., can only partially help. Like the cup of coffee, there are no refills, just the rush and these problems can only take so much B.S. The problem .is this is no panaceas, one size fits also.

    • March 26, 2016 at 10:28 pm

      I’ve struggled with anxiety, and I’ve used some of the tools you’ve mentioned to help with that. But then, they can only go so far if certain underlying conditions aren’t resolved … and, of course, the resolution is a slow, steady long haul, not a miraculously instantaneous thing.

      “All you need is love” is, of course, sung by someone who has food, water, and shelter. Someone lacking fundamentally in these things might not be around to sing the song. So, yes to positivity, but also to acknowledging that certain preconditions must be met for it to flourish!

  3. March 26, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    I agree especially the 2nd part of your response, being homeless, is a mitigating factor..

    • March 27, 2016 at 6:44 am

      Truly. I grew up in poverty such that I thought I really understood it through and through. When I took the course “Homelessness & the Law” in law school, I got a sense how woefully I’d misunderstood how many more hurdles are introduced by homelessness. When I later tutored kids at a homeless shelter, I started getting really frustrated anytime anyone said everyone starts with equal opportunities and needs to accept responsibility if they can’t figure out how to use them. The statement itself reflects ignorance so vast it can’t be remedied by mere words. This continues to raise for me the question: How on earth do you demonstrate certain hardships to people who don’t want to see them?

      • March 27, 2016 at 7:18 pm

        Agreed/ It amazes me how people can look down of on the indigent. I was at a soup shelter in 2013 and saw how the poor were treated. One guy was former Air Force like me, and said that one of the Police treated him like dirt. I saw it and was angered by the officer and I wanted to tell her wher she could go. But that was not, the only thing. I saw a Hawaiian girl who was holed up, in a broken car outside the shelter. It was so cold, that she was bundled up and she was caught up in a world she did not understand.. Fortunately for her, shortly thereafter. her parents had a ticket back to Hawaii.

        Saw racism also. A friend of mine who is black, was denied at a Subway on Veterans Day (he wasis a vet.) He told me, he needed a white person. So I went and verified him as legit. He was joking about it, in class.

  4. March 26, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    Hiss and spit at the arrogance of the empathy deprived people with, as you say, squeaky clean cups.
    What their generous words tend to do is add a level of failure to already overflowing cups and overwhelmed people.
    Some days finding the positive takes more energy than exists. Instead of telling people to find the dim and tiny pluses perhaps they could as this lovely post suggests GIVE a little positivity. Create a little…

    • March 27, 2016 at 6:51 am

      That’s exactly it: those words adds the sense of having utterly failed, leaving someone with even less operating energy. One of my BILs and I had a heated discussion about an aspect of this a few years ago. His take was that someone who says “at least they’re at peace!” or something similar is doing a kind thing by … trying to do a good thing? I said that when the end result is leaving someone feeling more alone and less capable of continuing on, another person’s ill considered expression of good intentions are less important than the end result of the added devastation. I mean, we all say less than perfect things when faced with sadnesses deeper than we can possibly cure with words and I really do think it’s borne of a desire to fix/heal/cure, but–as often is possible–it’s important to consider desired end result before speaking, and to understand that the platitudes we offer individually are ones heard innumerable times to someone in the throes of any kind of grief.

  5. March 27, 2016 at 3:50 am

    When I read your sister’s post last night, I thought about the implacably judgmental people who were part of my wife’s life when I met her. The world is full of unemployed life coaches, it would seem. But, as you so perfectly point out: people don’t want life coaches, they want friends.

    • March 27, 2016 at 6:55 am

      Exactly so! Most people struggling have already tried so many ways to improve their situations. Offering up suggestions that were inevitably part of what someone’s they’ve already tried to achieve doesn’t do anything … good.

      I love your blog because it’s the antithesis to that. So many questions, so much seen, so much openness to things as they are and compassion for what people are (or might be) up against. There’s nothing else like it that I’ve yet met.

      • March 27, 2016 at 11:11 am

        Thank you: that might truly be the best compliment this blog has ever gotten.

        And as for life experts, if certitude was money, there would be an awful lot of very rich people in the world.

  6. March 27, 2016 at 4:08 am

    *hugs* here’s to cup-emptying people! 🙂

    • March 27, 2016 at 6:56 am

      Hear, hear! I love living in Los Angeles, but one thing I sometimes regret is how far away are many of my cup-filling people. (The last few weeks, I’ve been working on building up the sense they are with me even when they are not physically with me, and it helps!)

  7. March 27, 2016 at 4:27 am

    This I needed today so I am grateful for not missing it. I needed it for my own self but also as a reminder to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’. My own anxiety is biting me hard, but those around me with few exceptions seem to believe I should set myself aside and ‘help’ them. I think I do myself an exceptional disservice sometimes by always being the shoulder to lean on.

    I love coming here and finding what I need. Thank you. ❤

    • March 27, 2016 at 7:05 am

      I so feel you on the anxiety. Mine is barely staying in the cup currently, though I’m finding small ways to decrease it bit by bit. I’d been steadily tipping out the exhaustion (and the anxiety) until we got our bad tax news, which catapulted me back into anxiety/in time to so often fearing my mom wouldn’t be able to scrape together a mortgage payment and that we’d be homeless.

      It’s been decades since I lived there, but the psychological damage is clearly far more enduring than I realized. I recognize consciously that I am in a very, very different situation than my mom was in, and that Anthony and I will find ways to work everything out, but there’s a stress that doesn’t go away just by telling it to go away. I have to find ways to feel okay, to get the exhaustion out of my mug not by forcing it out but by actually, effectively changing its root causes.

      With that accomplished, the stress diminishes, not by shouting at stress or anxiety to go away. I’d hoped giving up coffee alone would get my baseline anxiety down enough that additional changes wouldn’t be needed, but apparently that steadily increasing baseline anxiety of the last few years has done so much more damage than I realized. So now I’m working more comprehensively to address that, and I’m already seeing slight improvements after less than two weeks, though my anxiety and exhaustion are so high a single errant mishap sends me into fight or flight mode (as witnessed yesterday, yay).

      You deserve your love, compassion, time, and energy even more than do those around you, IMO. If/when you have anything left over, spread the love. But the more love is given without any being reserved by self, the quicker the mug of exhaustion fills … because there’s a point where, without replenishing, there is nothing left to give. No one wins.

      I love you, exactly as you gloriously are, and send big, big hugs.

      • March 27, 2016 at 8:05 am

        Thank you my dearest of friends. I think at some point I need a one-on-one with you on the phone. Maybe we can replenish a bit for each other.

  8. March 27, 2016 at 4:54 am

    You really are a lovely fountain of wisdom, dear Deborah.

  9. Deb
    March 27, 2016 at 6:20 am

    It’s all in the doing, especially when one is mired in that muck of a full to brimming cup and the sides of the mug literally grow taller and trap the negative crap in. Actions speak SO much louder than words…

    • March 27, 2016 at 7:09 am

      I feel like the cup gets smaller and smaller, like some of that exhaustion just gets baked on so that there’s less room for exhaustion to build before it starts–and stays–perpetually filling over. A mug that started out at 16 ounces becomes 15 ounces as old exhaustion adheres to the walls, and eventually to 14 ounces, and then 13 … until it no longer seems possible that it could ever be kept in.

      Recently my anxiety’s been high and I’ve come closer to appreciating how much stress stole from my mom. I’ve become even more frustrated by the unkind words masquerading as kindness, and which always helped keep her cup flowing over into all facets of life … so that, in time, exhaustion was all there was room for, having pushed out room for most anything else.

  10. March 27, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Love this, Deb. So spot-on as to how to really be a friend to others, even how to support those we don’t know well…we can try to step in their shoes and just “be” with them. And thanks also to the thoughtful commentators. Gave me a lot of food for thought and inspiration to be more present and caring in my interactions with others.

    • March 30, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      I love, love, love the food for thought provided in these comments, including yours! And, oh, how I love seeing you around! ♡

  11. March 27, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Yes! This part – friends who once spoke deep and true, who now speak only in clichés. – struck something within me. Honesty and helpful actions when ones cup is threating to or already has overflowed, is so vital.

    • March 30, 2016 at 12:51 pm

      It really is! To sustain the output required of busy, often exhausting lives, we need inputs: hugs, compassion, genuine assistance. Otherwise, we are functionally alone to shoulder some burdens to big for one person to carry well.

  12. March 27, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    Have you read Bright Sided? It’s a whole nonfiction book (beautifully written, impeccably researched) about the myth of positivity healing everything, and America’s obsession with thinking yourself positive/healthy/etc. A very good read!

    • March 30, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      I hadn’t heard of it, but it’s part of my Kindle library now thanks to your recommendation!

  13. Val
    April 5, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for writing this, I’ve been struggling for quite a while now with how to express the same thing. I’d far rather people were human than perfect and the positivity brigade just want everyone to be the impossible perfect that they, apparently, feel themselves to be. Some people are naturally cheerful (I identify them as the Pollyannas) and at the same time so very lacking in empathy, the rest of us are just getting by day to day, battling depressions and mood changes and all sorts of other entirely normal problems.

    Before now, I’ve burst into floods of tears when someone has suggested that I ‘think positively’. Your post has helped me understand why.

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