The Pitfalls of Positivity

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Being positive has become a new form of moral correctness

When I listened to Susan David’s recent TED talk, The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage (below), it really spoke to me. One thing I love about the online fitness community is how positive everyone is. Everyone is supportive of one another’s goals, encouraging when someone hits a roadblock, and always positive. But, there’s also a good amount of false positivity, where some people don’t believe it’s helpful to be sad, or angry, or have any non-positive thoughts. Dr. David refers to this kind of positivity as “a new form of moral correctness.” She’s absolutely right, and it’s absurd.

The most relatable example of this for me is when strangers on the street tell me to smile. It feels intrusive for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that they saying I’m not feeling the “right” way, and they are telling me the correct way to feel. One time, I had just left a doctor’s office after some less than ideal news. I was walking down the street, trying to process what my doctor had told me, and a random man told me to smile. I was furious. Immediately, I turned around and yelled at him to fuck off. No one should have dominion over my feelings but me.

Flywheel Personal WorstI ran into this same attitude when I made fun of myself for having a bad work out. Flywheel’s spin classes provide a metric called “Power” that is a calculation of your RPMs and resistance. I was disappointed in myself for having my worst Power score of all time. I got this comment:

I don’t understand what the “Personal Worst” thing is overall, what is this for?? It doesn’t sound too positive though. Please stay positive.

While messages like this are coming from a well-intentioned place, they are saying that a person shouldn’t feel anything other than happiness and a person should radiate positivity at all times. Messages like this communicate that it’s not okay to be disappointed in yourself, that there is only one way to be or feel. We need to give ourselves and others the space to deal with emotions other than just happiness.

The radical acceptance of all of our emotions--event the messy, difficult ones--is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happinessI didn’t feel positive about my workout, and that’s okay! That’s a real emotion that I had, and being told to feel a different way about negative experiences in my life is not constructive. It often results in people shaming themselves for feeling. They bottle up their feelings because it doesn’t fit the positive narrative they have built. As Dr. David says in her talk, we need to deal with these emotions in order to be resilient and find true happiness.

There is a fine line between encouragement and false positivity. Words of encouragement are important to help people do things that they were hesitant to do. It helps people feel engaged, and builds connections throughout the community. It gives people confidence in what they’re doing. That’s constructive, and I have no problem with that.

A third of us either judge outserlves for having so-called "bad emotions" like sadness, anger, or even grief, or actively try to push these asideWhere positivity becomes dangerous is when a person is using it to paper over their real emotions. According to Dr. David’s research, one third of people judge themselves for having “bad emotions.” When we’re feeling unhappy, we often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel that way, because we are so lucky. Instead of allowing themselves to feel their authentic negative emotions and respond in a constructive way, they replace the messy feelings with simpler ones.

When we feel unhappy, it should lead to a deeper examination of why we are unhappy, and what happiness means to us. This is incredibly hard work, but it’s necessary. We shouldn’t try to cheer ourselves up without that deeper introspection, so that we can work on fixing the underlying causes.

While having a positive mindset can be helpful, we need to have space to let us work on our emotions. That includes feeling sad, angry, remorseful, embarrassed, and the complete spectrum of human emotion.

Listen to Susan David’s TED talk below.

Dr. Susan David – The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage


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