By Candice Louisa Daquin
I was lucky enough to avoid the era of self-help books for the most part, but I remember when I was a kid, many adults joined groups which moved towards such pursuits. At the time it seemed sensible, I mean what’s wrong with helping yourself? Or letting others? By the time I was old enough to work, one of my early student jobs was in a bookstore, unsurprisingly. However, I was surprised at how many self-help books were still selling. Eventually those self-help books all shared the same theme: ‘Be positive. It’s the answer to everything.’
The message didn’t sit well with me once I began working with clients. It seemed the pressure of being positive and having to re-frame everything you thought/felt/said on a daily basis would be exhausting rather than healing.
Yesterday was one such example. In a small group of ten I was talking to a mom who recently had breast cancer. I said: “That’s a shame,” about something said. She immediately turned to me and said: “I try to reframe everything to a positive, so I don’t think it’s a shame, I’m all right with it.” The conversation was shut down as fast as if I had said, “I don’t care.” Fine, I thought, this is her way of handling things post-breast-cancer. Made sense. She’d been through a lot and being positive was working for her. Nobody else in the group said anything other than positive platitudes and I left feeling like I had bathed in honey, but not in a good way.
When we can’t have balanced, adult conversations that include an acceptance that not everything is going to be 100 percent peachy 24/7, then we fall into conversations of platitudes, small talk and falsity. Granted, I’m usually one of the first to be positive, but like anything, balance and a time-and-a-place factor into this. If someone comes to me crying because they lost a parent, I’m not going to say: “I try to reframe everything into a positive.” That would be insensitive. Likewise, sometimes people feel they cannot talk about things because they’re going to be deliberately or inadvertently shut down for saying something that isn’t shining and positive.
The reality, however, is we do suffer. We can be scared. We are exhausted sometimes. We may have fears, or feel overwhelmed, or just depressed for no reason. None of those emotions are ‘wrong’ and by aggressively reframing every perceived ‘negative’ thought we’re cutting out our need to express ourselves. Yes, like everything we need to keep in mind there are definite advantages to thinking positively, but we may have gone too far.
My clients overwhelmingly share with me that they are exhausted and wary of the positivity police. By this they mean, the mothers-in-law who shut them down for saying they’re tired or fed-up or cranky or peri menopausal. They embrace their ‘squad’ of female and male friends whom they can go out with for an evening and talk candidly with. No positivity police around. They are stressed from having to watch what they say, much like others complain that they cannot comment on a girl’s pretty dress for fear of being labeled toxic or inappropriate.
Linguistic change is good. It can help erase some common stereotypes, but if it shuts us all down and prevents candour, then it’s also harmful. When you jump on someone for not being ‘positive enough’ it isn’t very different from telling someone to ‘cheer up’ when they have clinical depression, or ‘get over it.’ And we all know how well that goes.
Granted, sensitivity training has fallen to the wayside since social media, but in some ways, it has reinvented itself as the erasure police. Groups of people who take it upon themselves to pontificate on the right others have to their feelings. If those feelings are racist or sexist, then maybe someone should say something, but if they’re simply about how we’re feeling, does it help to tell someone they should be more positive?
Like anything, it’s how you say it, and when you say it and why you say it. I have a client who is so negative it does harm her and so it behooves me to try to reframe her thinking – but I do so respectfully and in the context of therapy. If we were friends out for lunch, I wouldn’t shame her in front of others by saying she was too negative and she needed to be more grateful and positive. That’s not friendship that’s gaslighting.
The other day I was talking to a client whose husband died a few years ago. She was told by relatives, both his and hers, that she was ‘taking too long to grieve and needed to get back to living’. On the surface, she agreed, but later on, she felt bullied by their words, as if she’d fallen short of what was socially acceptable. She told me angrily (and has given me permission to share this) that she didn’t think anyone had the right to dictate how she should feel about losing her husband, or the duration of that grief, nor did it help to be shamed into thinking she wasn’t ‘doing enough’ to get over his death.
Again, clinically if a client is experiencing challenges with grieving beyond the intensity of the experience, they may wish to process this and find ways through it that are more expedient. But that’s a very different thing to being told by those you want to trust, that you’re failing to get over something that you shouldn’t have a subscribed mourning period for. The cult of positivity can be a stranglehold when it goes too far, as anything can.
Is there an alternative?
We agree that positivity tends to benefit the beholder, and others. Whilst negativity can be harmful. We also agree everything must be in the right time, and the right balance for the individual. People are different. Ironically some of my clients and acquaintances, report they feel ‘less pressured’ ‘more relaxed’ and ‘less judged’ when they hang out with sardonic, less positive people. Contrary to popular belief, the most positive person in the room isn’t always the most popular.
I can relate to this because when I feel too much positivity is heaped on my plate, I feel akin to a performing seal, it’s inauthentic, tiring, and doesn’t leave me feeling positive. Sometimes a really hard day, with plenty of negative experiences, can act as a better reminder of the value of life, than someone shouting out positivisms. Likewise, if I watch a film where everyone is radiant and happy, it can seem less authentic, and sometimes it’s the struggle, and the endurance, rather than say, the happy ending, that captures my interest.
Why else do we appreciate dark humour? Or like watching psychological thrillers? A bit like people saying you can only appreciate happiness if you have experienced grief. There is a wise lesson in the necessity for balance and reflection of both. If we police every sentence and dictate every action into what we believe are positive traits, we may be exhausting our natural state. It is possible to be realistic without being negative or positive. It is possible to be reflective without giving up hope or forgetting how challenging life can be. For some, extreme positive thinking appears to work, just like for some working out in a gym for 5 hours a day, works. But not everyone lives in extremes, in fact most of us do not. If I’m hearing from my clients that they are exhausting by having to maintain the appearance of positivity, then we’re doing something very wrong in thinking this is the answer to everything.
There is a time and a place for everything, or a season. And sometimes when the sun shines and it’s a beautiful day, we feel capable of maintaining a positive mood all day, and it seems to radiate from us. Whilst this may be an ideal, it’s not likely to be possible to sustain and if we don’t manage to sustain it, should we feel ashamed of that or believe we have failed?
Ironically, I could sit at a table with a bunch of self-deprecating, sardonic folk and have a real laugh, where we’re not all pretending everything is peachy but we’re pretty happy all things considered, and that’s without a need to reframe each word into a positive. There is something very liberating and freeing about being yourself, not having to watch what you say to such an extreme. When we police ourselves, we’re not doing therapy, or work on ourselves, so much as we’re being self-conscious about what we say, and often inauthentic.
So many times, I talk to people I meet, and they are unremittingly positive, but later on when they know me better, they reveal a totally different side of themselves. A man I have known some time, tends to make a conscious point of being positive 24/7 because he’s in marketing and believes instilling positivity is how he sells efficiently. But when he’s had a glass of wine and it’s the evening, he will reveal to us at the table as we sit talking, a completely different side to himself. I can see why he needs to maintain the positive side for work and I admire that, but I often wonder if he is a little tortured by the pressure he puts on himself to be like this 24/7, when it’s clearly not his ‘natural’ state.
Funnily enough I like the ‘real’ side of him far better. It’s more realistic, less cliched and narrowly focused and I believe, just as content, without the need to put the shine on all the time. Growing up with friends and family who were not afraid to be realistic or even negative, I can see the value and the downside of negativity. Being negative all the time reminds me of the saying ‘nothing comes from nothing’ whilst realism is underrated and underutilized. I wouldn’t want to be as self-defeating as some of those whom I grew up with, I believe in empowering people and supporting them, which involves believing in them and being positive. But I also think too much of a good thing can be insincere.
Sometimes when a client comes to me and says they’re having an awful time, I know they do not want me to reframe that and tell them tomorrow will be better, or if only they could see the positive in the event, things will improve. That would be offensive and inauthentic. Rather, they want me to sit with them, digest their experience, share it and be a friend. Sometimes a friend doesn’t need to make things better, they just need to care and show up.
The extreme end of positivity feels a lot like a cult. It’s unrelenting, it changes language and natural feelings, it acts like a cancel culture on many authentic emotions and shuts them down. One of the best things I ever heard from a therapist was from a colleague who told me: “Sometimes it just stinks and you have to throw your hands up and say I give up! Until something changes, which it might not, for a long time, but eventually it will. If during that time you feel awful, that’s just how you are going to feel and it’s okay to feel that.” That therapist was radically different in their approach. There’s something honest and real about this advice, that I don’t find when I get overdosed on mantras, affirmations, positive sayings and memes.
Too much of anything can be an overdose, that includes positivity. While a teen may get a lot from a positive meme on Instagram, they may also feel less alone by reading a negative meme. The point is to avoid the extremes of embracing darkness or pretending it doesn’t exist. The point is to consider we’re humans not trainable robots. Don’t we already stifle emotions enough by trying to be strong all the time? When did being honest about how you feel, become an anathema? If your heart tells you that you are exhausted by trying too hard, then examine this. Take a step back. Be authentic to yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. Follow your gut instinct. Sometimes the extra slice of really sugary cake isn’t delicious, it’s nauseating. Stay balanced kingfisher!
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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