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Positive Mindset Pt. 3: The False Allure of Relentless Positivity
Or, avoid becoming a Stepford Wife
In this post, I want to re-emphasize how important it is to “look on the bright side of life” while at the same time diverging from the popular “adopt a positive attitude” approach that has permeated today’s zeitgeist. As someone who practices Coaching for Transformation, I want to focus on alchemical change – which means that to get to the good stuff, we move through the crappy stuff so you can be FREE. The only way out is through.
I want to teach you The Organic Way of Becoming Positive – and to do so, I want to explore the false allure of the Positivity Movement.
This means debunking “relentless positivity”— the sole pursuit of always looking on the bring side and the disavowal of the “shadowy” emotions. I realize that while many business and/or spiritual gurus stress “accentuate the positive because what you think, you are”, there is something missing. Actually, there were some things that are missing from this “accentuate the positive” advice:
1. ) When we focus on positivity alone, we deny understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which becomes buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. I know way too many people who, upon having a negative thought or expressing a negative emotion like frustration, immediately start beating themselves up for it. They immediately feel guilt and apologize for that feeling. Indeed, they are responding to our society’s subtle conditioning: Promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized judgment against negative emotions. They don’t realize that relentless positivity causes an emotional infection, where undealt with emotions spread systemically, unchecked, often morphing into more virulent negative emotions.
To be sure, to stay stuck in being disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a ‘victim’ and a ‘whiner”, but when we’re facing life challenges, we can’t just slap on a happy face and simply think we should get over it. A positive mindset does not mean living in denial. Tragedies happen. Someone we love goes through major difficulty or dies. We get a diagnosis. A natural disaster occurs and destroys our possessions. These are all part of the fabric of life. It’s not a question of if the hard stuff comes, but when it comes. Our feelings need to be acknowledged and honored. For instance, if we are dealing with a major loss, we need time to go through the grieving process. Otherwise, the healing is incomplete and our feelings will keep coming back in unskillful ways. How we relate to life’s challenges is what matters.
Truly happy people are not happy all the time – in fact a study shows that people with a positive mindset have learned to open up to difficulties honestly and skillfully, without being overwhelmed. We needn’t pretend that things are going swimmingly when they’re not. We can, however, learn to meet our challenges wisely and, through practice, use them to learn how to keep our hearts open.
There are instances you can’t face cheerily, and you shouldn’t have to, if you don’t want to. You should be allowed negative reactions. When you are going through hell, allowing you to scream if you want to, seems to be the least the rest of us can do. Feel to heal.
SIDEBAR: The consequences of suppression. Do people who suppress their emotions successfully express less negative emotions? Psychological research shows that when people are told to suppress their emotions during experiments, they express fewer negative emotions, but they still report experiencing as many negative emotions as people who aren’t told to suppress. And it turns out that people who habitually suppress their emotions actually experience more negative emotions than people who suppress less. Although suppression doesn’t dampen people’s experience of negative emotions (just their expression of them) it does seem to have an adverse effect on people’s positive emotions – people who suppress more do report experiencing and expressing less positive emotions. Being a suppressor is also associated with being more depressed, less satisfied with life, and having lower self esteem, optimism and well-being. People who suppress more also have less social support, avoid getting close to others, and are seen by peers as having fewer close relationships. Why is suppression so bad? Researchers suggest that it’s because suppressing your emotions makes you feel inauthentic, which leads to feeling worse about yourself and your relationships, the very thing you were trying to avoid.
2.) Positive thinking and affirmations on their own Don’t Work. In an experiment published in Psychological Science, Elaine Perunovic & John Lee tested this statement. They recruited people to participate in a study based on their results from a Self-Esteem assessment. People who scored in the lowest third of scores (low self-esteem) and in the highest third of the distribution (high self-esteem) were invited to participate and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions.
Participants were asked to either repeat to themselves the statement, “I’m a lovable person,” (positive self-statement condition) for four minutes, or to write down their thoughts and feelings (control condition) for four minutes.
The research results indicated that people who were low in self-esteem felt worse about themselves after repeating the positive self-statement. Their moods and their self-esteem–their feelings about themselves at that moment–were more negative than those of lows in the control condition. In contrast, people with high self-esteem did feel better after repeating the positive self-statement, but to only a limited degree.
3.) Relentless positivity promotes magical thinking (a conviction that thinking is equivalent to doing) and does not adequately prepare us for the work the life requires of us. Do you have a utopian vision of your future? I know I do. In my own vision of nirvana, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there is more connection, respect and relationship with Nature. In my utopia, life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute and the Earth flourishes for it. Here’s the kicker about bringing about our version of utopia: we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition simply by wishing it. And to swing into action, we need to prepare ourselves for obstacles (a.k.a. challenges and opportunities), both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. Let’s face it: changing your life – or building your utopia – is terrifying. Why do you think most people would rather post happy, shallow “empowering” quotes on Twitter rather than do the day-in, day-out, frightening, liberating, exhilarating, confusing, empowering action? Creating the life you most desire is a terrifying experience and it’s a never-ending cycle of hard but highly gratifying work. Magical thinking, on its own, does not help. End of story.
Clearly I’m not saying that positive thinking is wrong. Rather, I believe, based on my experiences, that a positive disposition is a result of confidence, which is only really gained by being tested. A positive disposition is also a result of healthy self-esteem, which comes from successfully navigating adversity, and lends itself to success, especially if that positive thinking is based on realism.
It behooves us all to not fall into blind positivity. Dogma, an idea or set of beliefs that are considered undoubtedly correct without proof, serves no one.
Next Up: How to genuinely, realistically and authentically turn that frown upside down.