Debunking the myth of positivity as a moral compass point
Seeing as it’s a new year, I thought I’d start by bringing everyone down and being a moaning Mildred for a thousand words or so. The start of a new year tends to bring about the desire for change, to ‘better’ ourselves. Don’t even get me started on diet culture. That’s a totally different post entirely.
Desire for change
With change comes fresh new ideas and mindsets as we all strive to be the best version of ourselves. Some people make changes for good, and others forget about them and settle into old ways come February.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to change yourself. As someone who lives with mental illness, the desire (and need) to change myself is frequent. Factually, I can’t really live like this forever. I have to change. Therapy is helping with that, but it’s not this sort of deep-rooted rewiring I’m talking about.
Wanting to change aspects of yourself is admirable, particularly if those aspects are damaging to you or others. I want to make it clear that in this post I’m not belittling anyone who’s working towards a better version of them. I think that’s brave and important.
If I was content to let myself stay the same, I’d never get mentally healthy and I’d never have learned anything. So, change is not necessarily a bad thing. If someone I knew ten, or even five or six, years ago told me I’d changed, I’d see it as a positive. I hope I have. I certainly hope I’ve changed since being 21, because in my early twenties I was a fucking idiot and, sorry, but so are most people.
A shiny spin on things
What I’m getting at with this talk of change is the oft-lauded desire to embrace positivity, to manifest all that you desire simply by putting a shiny spin on things. Again, to deride positivity as naff and useless would be foolish of me. Positivity is extremely important, particularly when you’re learning to navigate confusing emotional symptoms.
You have to be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel otherwise you’d give up. It’s not the very notion of positivity that’s got my (admittedly easy to get) goat this year, Instead it’s false positivity.
What do I mean by that? To me, it’s completely unrealistic to anticipate and practise positivity all the time. Appreciating the little things, practising gratitude, this is all very helpful and honourable. Expecting to embrace a positive mindset all the time is dangerous to me.
What if you don’t feel positive?
The constant pursuit of positivity could well lead to masking or ignoring your real feelings. Take it from me, that shit does not create a healthy mind. I spent years pushing negative, or even strongly positive, feelings down and look at me now.
False positivity doesn’t help anyone. Again, I’m not suggesting we renounce positivity in its entirety. What happens when you aren’t feeling positive, but you plaster it on anyway? You get damaged, that’s what. Life isn’t always positive, and sometimes it’s almost impossible to put a positive spin on things.
My best friend’s dad passed away a couple of years ago. What she was inundated with after his death, and during his illness, was what she termed ‘shit silver linings.’ People would say things like, “At least he didn’t suffer,” or, “At least you were all with him.” These are good things, and I know she takes great comfort from being with her father in his last moments. She also maintains that it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
At least you were with him. Yes, they were. I hope he knew that as he passed. Did that make it easier for them? Her father was still dead. Thankfully I don’t have this experience, but believe it or not, anecdotal evidence suggests it’s not pleasant to watch someone die.
Needless platitudes didn’t take away the fact her dad had died. Trying to see some light in the situation didn’t make her feel any better. She didn’t appreciate people trying to skirt around the monstrous beast of grief by attempting to find some comfort in what was undoubtedly a horrible situation.
Strong emotions are scary
Grief is a strange thing, and people are frightened of it. I’ve learned a lot from trying to support my friend through this. The first is, to never ‘at least’ a situation if I can. Sometimes, you just need someone to let you feel shit. You need someone to say, “I know this is horrible. I’m here, and you can feel however you want.” My friend was offered so many of these shit silver linings that they became a running joke.
I won’t go into details, but I can see why dark humour helps people through things.
I think the problem is that people feel they have to find the positives. That somehow, it will make a situation better. The reality is that we aren’t good at handling difficult emotions. We search for the positives to placate ourselves and dull the pain we’re feeling.
Could be worse…
It’s almost as though people see it as a necessity. Something bad happens, and we have to find some tiny positive in what might be a truly fucked up situation. Yes, this terrible thing happened, but at least it wasn’t this other terrible thing! Oh, good. That makes me feel a lot better.
As someone who lives with mental illnesses I’ve heard my fair share of these insipid positives. Other people have it worse! Have you tried thinking positively? Don’t worry about that, you can’t control it! If it was as simple as that, I literally wouldn’t be this way. I don’t need to be told other people have it worse. I know that. It’s one of the reasons I feel so shit.
Finding positives in a shit situation is a gift, as long as you truly believe them. If you genuinely find comfort and happiness from something, take it. Use it. Make it your own.
We’re scared of negative feelings, though. We don’t need to find positives that might not be there. Difficult situations and feelings exist, and we need to feel them. It doesn’t do us any good to experience trauma and plaster it with “Well, it could be worse.” Maybe it could. That doesn’t mean our feelings don’t exist.
Experience your feelings
What I think is healthier is experiencing these horrible, piercing emotions. Sitting with them. Allowing them. Accepting that horrible things happen and we’re allowed to feel however we want. Maybe it’s irrational, maybe we need talking down, but we need to feel it before that can help. Difficult situations and feelings exist. We need to feel them, and then we can find the positive lessons afterwards. If they exist.
I’d argue there aren’t many positives you can take from the death of a family member, abuse, trauma, or otherwise. These things change you as a person, maybe even in positive ways, but it doesn’t feel good. Maybe you’ll gain strength, compassion, understanding. It didn’t feel good to get it. Was it a positive? In some ways. In others, maybe you’d just rather have not experienced it in the first place.
For these reasons it’s often a little jarring to see people relentlessly pursue positivity as a fix for emotional turmoil or anything else. I don’t believe that we should see the negative in everything either, because that just breeds misery and contempt. It’s about balance, and being realistic.
Expecting to vibe positively all the time is harmful, not just because it shields our emotions. If you’re feeling a bit low but you’re determined to find the positives, what happens if you can’t do that? You think you’ve failed. Internally you berate yourself for not existing on this nonsensical higher moral plane of positivity.
That’s what it seems like – as though positivity is the beacon of moral success. We’ve only achieved true enlightenment when we’re able to serenely grasp these positive vibes that pass by the lesser beings. As I’m workingh through therapy and trying to get a handle on my mental health, I’m not aspiring to be relentlessly positive.
I’m aspiring to be real, and to accept that I can and should allow myself to feel real things. I don’t anticipate putting a positive spin on my anxiety or depression. Have I gained some good things along the way? Yes. I’ve learned some things. Has it been a pleasant, positively life-changing experience? No. For me, the balance of mental health means being able to feel whatever we like, to express it healthily, and to move past it as and when we can.
Some things will change you irrevocably, like the death of a loved one or trauma. That doesn’t mean you’re obliged to try to see this change as a good thing. It just happened. It was a result of a horrible, traumatic experience. Every cloud does not necessarily have a silver lining, but equally, clouds can change form, be blown by the wind.
I’m not trying to do anyone down. I’m just being realistic about what’s best for me, and how I think a healthy way to approach emotions is. I’ve known people who are unforgiving in their pursuit of positivity, and honestly, it’s exhausting sometimes. You can almost feel the effort as they grasp at shit silver linings. The best way we can be is to understand and listen to our own feelings and those of others around us,
Nudging someone in a negative rut towards something more positive isn’t a bad idea. Overbearing them with ideas about how wonderful everything is, if only they weren’t so blind, is less helpful.
Don’t lie to yourself
If your sole mission in life is to live positively, that’s not a bad thing. Don’t let it override your true feelings, though. Allow yourself the space to feel whatever and whenever you like, accepting that it’s part of life. You don’t have to plaster a huge, smiley-faced bandage on a raw wound to heal from it. Sometimes wounds need to breathe.
If, like me, you’ve questioned yourself for not being able to look at life through the arse of a rainbow, don’t worry. Concentrate on allowing yourself to feel, accepting your emotions rather than burying them. Don’t be afraid to be real with people. For the most part, they’re just trying to help and be nice. Keep in mind that you don’t have to subscribe to positivity as a higher moral code, and that it’s perfectly okay to feel negatively about things.
I hope this made sense and that my point has been made clear. I’m never going to turn on someone who’s just trying to help, but I feel braver in being able to say, ‘Actually, that’s not working for me.’ It’s a bit like when my GP asked if I’d tried seeing the positives, despite having known me and my diagnoses for years. I politely pointed out that if it were that simple, I wouldn’t have been sitting in front of him at all.
Feel your feelings, and let go of the idea you have to feel good to move on. Being kind is allowing your thoughts and emotions to breathe, not stuffing them up in a fluffy cushion with a glazed smile, pretending everything is alright.
It will be in the end, but let it be alright when you’re ready for it, and not a second sooner.