I feel like this is an important companion piece for last week’s Be As If post. I mentioned this topic briefly there, but I think it deserves more attention.
Good vibes only!
Dream it, do it!
The only thing stopping you is you!
Choose happiness!-Lady on Pinterest with too many dogs
Do you ever feel like we’re taking this Positivity Culture thing too far?
Look, I’m all for feeling great. I’m the Ash Ketchum of happiness neurochemicals. Serotonin, Oxytocin, Dopamine, Endorphins—gotta catch ‘em all!
But, let’s be honest: we’re not always going about it the right way. Here are
three four five reasons why we need to evolve past positivity culture and make it okay to feel our feelings again.
#1: Mandatory positivity doesn’t work
As someone who has repeatedly entered the arena against Anxiety, PTSD, and Depression…and managed ADHD for 25 years with nothing more than coffee and a hefty dose of self-deprecation, I can attest that (and this may be controversial, but hear me out) it’s more enjoyable to feel happy than to feel like a pile of hot garbage. I’ve done some pretty ridiculous, unhealthy, and risky stuff to get a hit of any or all of those precious happy chemicals.
Do you know what has never, ever, not ONCE, made me feel better, in any of the circumstances I outlined above? A graphic with “Choose Happiness” written on it in Wine-Mom font, shared by a #blessed woman with airbrushed family pictures.
Here’s the thing: I would TOTALLY “choose happiness” every time. The trouble is, let’s say…my house is flooded and half-destroyed, the sole breadwinner in our house got laid off, my whole family is down with the flu, and I just had a miscarriage. If this sounds like an oddly specific scenario, it’s because this was literally January-April of my family’s 2016. Every day I was able to get out of bed, keep my kids alive, and (maybe) brush my teeth in that time period was a victory worth celebrating. I was under no obligation to do it with a smile. We are all entitled to a moderate amount of wallowing, when it suits the occasion. This is your birthright, and mine.
That doesn’t mean I want to be miserable; of course I hope and expect that things will eventually get better.* It also doesn’t mean we give up and stop striving, or double-down on a tough situation with poor choices. But being sad or otherwise having a crappy time is sometimes part of the human experience, and that’s okay. It’s okay to wholeheartedly hate whatever it is that you’re going through.
(*If you do not hope and expect that things will eventually get better, please call the wonderful folks at Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. They can help. You are worth their help.)
#2: Shouldas make shame
When you’re in the depths of despair, messages that demand your constant, unblinking positivity are not only not helpful, they can actually make you feel worse. It implies that your misery—whether it’s brought on by circumstances or a bum deal on brain chemistry—is somehow all your fault. If you could just be positive, you could be feeling great right now, right? Your failure to emit Good Vibes Only is just one more failure on the pile. You know what that brings us, as a fun side dish for our sadness?
And we all know the power of shame (spoiler: she’s not a good witch). Shame compounds everything. If you’ve got sadness soup, shame will add meat and potatoes and cornstarch slurry and turn it into a stew so thick, your spoon’ll stand straight up. Sadness flows over and through you, but shame sticks to your ribs. It makes a mess, too. Binding to whatever it touches, shame must be scrubbed from our souls with a scouring pad. Does that sound uncomfortable? That’s because it totally is!
If you’re going through a tough time, you’re not failing as a person. And you certainly didn’t create the sorry state you’re in just by not thinking enough happy thoughts. Where did we even come up with this complex? Personally, I blame Peter Pan. We were told that we can literally fly–IF we just think happy thoughts! Also, when a jealous, miserable brat of a fairy dies, it’s your fault for not giving them enough attention. Because that’s a relationship worth saving.
Please don’t sue me, Disney. I have four kids; you already get all of my monies.
#3: Positivity culture keeps us from getting the help we need
Another thing that happens when we fall into the toxic positivity trap, is we run the risk of depriving ourselves of help. Help can be professional: therapy, meds, holistic healing methods, whatever might be of service to you. Or help can be as simple as a friend hearing your lamentations and offering a hug, a dinner, troubleshooting, or basic validation.
However, if you’re receiving messages that you’re somehow at fault for feeling what you’re feeling…why ask for help? Maybe you should just be tougher, stronger, more resilient. This is a different side of the same toxic masculinity coin that is killing our men. C’mon, self—bootstraps! Buck up! Or, you know, beat yourself up and keep compounding the sadness and shame until the pain becomes too much and then everyone can sit around at the funeral and wonder why on earth you didn’t ask for help. I mean, I was gonna, but everyone told me to stay positive, so…
#4: Toxic positivity destroys our ability to empathize
My closest friends and I have developed a habit of saying: “I hate this for you.” It’s so simple that it works. It means we have no solutions or fancy words that will take away your pain right now, but I see you and I honor your pain. Or maybe we do have ideas for solutions, but you’re not in a place where you’re ready to hear them right now. It’s our way of holding space for each other and whatever pile of UGH someone is dealing with in the moment. Is it negative? Technically, I guess. But when you’re going through a divorce, or navigating abuse, a miscarriage, unemployment, a major illness…you need empathy, not “Cheer up, it’ll all work out.” The empathy, the validation–this is what creates the love and connection that is so vital to our mental health.
Sometimes the first thing someone needs is for a fellow human to say, “You’re right. This sucks. It’s okay that you feel sucky about it.”
When—and only when—someone’s pain has been validated, then they may be in a position to be helped with suggestions of counseling, or whatever it is that might be helpful. If you go to the doctor for excruciating physical pain and they’re like, “Okay, but have you tried ignoring it?” you’d nope right on out of there. We have got to stop doing this to people’s emotional pain.
Which brings me to my last point.
#5: Someone desperately needs YOU to be real about your pain
When you buy into the positivity trap, you’re depriving others of You: your genuineness, your relatability, your story. Your story has Power. If you’re alive to read this, you’ve overcome something. I don’t know what it is, but I know it hurt like hell and made you question everything. At one point, you thought maybe you couldn’t do it. But here you are! Your mission now is to share your story, share your strength, share your empathy. Somebody needs it, badly. Someone is sitting in a pile of UGH right now that is very similar to something you’ve gone through and overcome. What a resource you can be! That is, if you’re not both too busy hiding your pain in service of projecting “GOOD VIBES.”
Does this mean we walk around like Eeyore all day, wearing every bad thing that ever has or ever could go wrong on our sleeve?
Please do not do that. You soon won’t have anyone left to talk to, to offer them help, because folks will see you coming and cross the street (ask me how I know). What I mean is, love your people enough to be real, and vulnerable. Empathize.
Allow people space to feel like crap sometimes. Allow yourself the same luxury. Lean into grief, frustration, and overwhelm. Feel its full weight, and know that it, too, shall pass. Might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.
Surround yourself with deep, real, love. Love that will get its hands dirty with and for you. Be that love. Be real. Be authentic. Authenticity over positivity. Always.