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The Tyrannical Culture of Positivity

Man consoling friend

“Take a look at the bright side,” we tell our loved ones when they’re feeling down. “See the cup half full, not half empty.” We help lift our friends by saying, “Cheer up! Don’t dwell in the negative. Be grateful. Think about all that you have.” If it seems our friends suffer from low self-esteem, we extol their virtues and exclaim, “People are attracted to positivity in others. Think positive thoughts and good things will happen to you.”

We draw upon a large base of common wisdom in order to combat the slings and arrows of existence. And some of the time, we do all right. When a person carries a cheerful spirit into a room, there is a terrific splendor that is contagious. We support one another. We lend one another positive strength when needed.

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With all its potential for good, positive thinking can at times act as an oppressive tyrant, an enemy of happiness. After all, if the solution were so straightforward, if we could think our way into happiness, then our world wouldn’t be riddled with chronic misery. The mandate to be positive and cheerful in our culture is so pervasive and powerful, even psychotherapy clients feel a tremendous burden in simply communicating uncomfortable feelings to their therapists. Everyday popular treatment of emotions is hardly hearing someone out.

The darker social message of an individual who insists on surrounding himself or herself exclusively with positive energy sounds something like this: “Don’t whine. You sound like a baby. Get over it.” The culture of positivity often forgets the need for the yin and yang, the harmony of opposites. It can squash the voices of hurt, dissent, disagreement, and injustice. Even more oppressive: “You are weak. You’re taking on a victim mentality. Don’t be a victim.” The unwitting oppression marginalizes the voices of victims—victims of trauma, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

The fact is painful experiences can be uncomfortable to listen to. Nobody wants to upset their friends and family with feelings of discomfort. So, people become terrified of identifying as a victim. They deny trauma they have endured in order to spare “burdening” loved ones. They fear being considered weak because they are being asked to do something impossible—to get over it and move on. But in the case of trauma, the attempt to forget about it is the problem. Those who are identified as “victims” in our culture display exceptional bravery, refusing to act as though their hurt has disappeared, succumbing to the majority’s desire for them to get over it. One cannot simply “move on.” To live a fully human life, one must embrace the good and the bad in themselves and others.

It is true that some people dwell in cycles of negativity. But how do we know when we should or shouldn’t attempt to lift them from their sorrows? The key is learning how to listen. At times a person needs to endure a feeling, state, or mood in order to grow. What the person needs is compassion—a trusted other to listen while he or she endures his or her difficulties. Attempts to redirect the other toward positivity may be well intended, but may also lack compassion. Advocating a shift into a positive perspective may be received by the other as dismissive, even uncaring, depending on whether the listener is truly attuned to his or her friend’s needs. After all, how can you truly listen to someone if you’ve already decided what he or she should feel and how he or she should think?

Having compassion means feeling with someone—finding one’s way across the barrier of alienation. Having a need to redirect a friend’s emotions may indicate a difficulty or unwillingness to join him or her in a troubled state. Some may fear being “pulled down” by another’s troubles. Underneath the demand for oneself and others to stay positive is a terror about what lay on the other side of life, the darker side. Under the driven, fiery force of positive thinking lay immense anxiety. Ultimately, that fear inhibits a more fruitful joy—that of authentic connection, an enduring togetherness in the wholeness of life.

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  • Jazzy March 4th, 2013 at 10:48 AM #1

    I can kind of see where you are coming from with this- sometimes when all you want to be is a little down it is aggravating to always have to listen to someone telling you that you need to be positive and look a little more on the bright side.
    But I also know that a lot of how we feel and how we function has a great deal to do with mind over matter. If you will it to be so then that’s what it could be. It does help to sometimes take the edge off just to look at something from another point of view and realize that there is still the chance to make something good happen out of something bad.

  • Indigo March 4th, 2013 at 11:14 AM #2

    I am all for walking through the pain that is current in your life. If a child has an incurable disease, a lover finds another, or a job is lost leading to financial ruin, there will be pain. I think the person should stay in that pain and walk through it. But, I do think there is a time when you’ve walked through the pain and you must get to the other side of it. The point of pain is to heal, not to sit in continuous misery b/c something bad happened at some point in your life. Yes, walk through the pain, but make sure you do walk through it. Don’t stay stuck in it.

  • kelli k March 4th, 2013 at 11:16 AM #3

    it is so true that nobody wants to hear when you are upset not even people who are supposed to by ur friends. one time i was really hurting when somebody had cheated on me and everyone said i should just get over it but all i wanted to do was to talk about it. my mom was really good and listened to me all the time but my friends just wanted to tell me to look at the brite side all the time

  • Jasper March 4th, 2013 at 11:18 AM #4

    Very true that people often make up their minds about how you should feel when you’ve really only just begun to talk. People should really learn how to listen better.

  • m granger March 4th, 2013 at 11:20 AM #5

    “Some may fear being “pulled down” by another’s troubles”

    I don’t know if this is it or more just a general anxiety and uncomfortableness with real, honest emotions rather than the typical “put on a happy face.”

  • Lons March 4th, 2013 at 11:22 AM #6

    sitting through pain is hard. even if it is somebody you no real good.

    like my friend mary from high school we used to talk all the time until i went thru my mamas dying. it was like she didn’t no waht to say to me no more.

    so we kind of quite talking which was just all the harder with my mama dying and all. i wished she felt like she could still talk to me cuz i miss her alot.

  • miranda March 4th, 2013 at 10:38 PM #7

    this couldn’t be any truer! it’s just so frustating when someone goes on telling you can wish away your problems. if it was so easy I would’ve done it already, duh! you don’t have to tell me to cheer up just give me your company I’m hurt and a little time could make me feel better. i don’t always have to jump back up!

    and just because I want to feel my hurt completely does not make me a negative or a bad person. theres nothing wrong in tasting deeply whatever it is you’re going through!

  • George D March 5th, 2013 at 3:48 AM #8

    I have a real problem when I have friends who do this to me. If or when you are a real friend you will see what their immediate needs are, and sometimes they need a pep talk and other times you just need someone to commiserate with you for a little while. We have all had to do this at certain times with friends, and this is what it should all be about. There are some people who choose to live in the world with a glass half full mentality and some with the glass half empty, but most of us kind of wax and wane as the situation changes, and good friends will see this and be able to navigate through that.

  • Dara March 5th, 2013 at 9:43 AM #9

    I’m just about to read Barbara Ehernreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. I was delighted when I came across it! And now delighted to have stumbled upon this article. I have been thinking about how cult-like this positivity movement has become and it concerns me. Empathy & compassion are definitely missing in cases where a person is dedicated only to optimism and optimistic people. Negative things happen. Negative emotions exist for a reason. It all has its place and its purpose and I feel so strongly that it must be dangerous to ignore that. Thanks for this post! It’s good to know I am not alone is being suspicious of always being positive.

  • heather March 5th, 2013 at 11:37 PM #10

    I’m 1 of those ppl who will always tell you to stay positive and always the 1 to cheer a friend on. but when it comes to myself it doesn’t work! sometimes I even ask myself whether all this positive talk works. but I do it for friends anyway in d hope that they benefit. I really wish things were not required to be so ‘positive’ at all times and we could just sit back at times n reflect on the negatives too!

  • lucy March 27th, 2013 at 10:16 AM #11

    There’s a big difference between using victim-ness (acting like a victim) as a defense and being true to one’s experience of being victimized. This article loses sight of this distinction.

  • John April 23rd, 2013 at 10:02 PM #12

    Steve, I enjoyed the article (particularly your reversal of the general framing of victimhood–emphasizing the bravery of admitting to having been traumatized in a culture that would ask one to surrender to the pretense of never having been touched by adversity) and I also found interesting the mixed reaction in the comments section. There is a lot of fear out there about what could happen if we set aside our by-the-bootstraps positive thinking. I would like to say to any that fear this more magical form of positivity (and it is very natural to fear the taking away of such an immediate and omnipotent panacea) that there is a positive end in enduring the full range of reactions to the hardships of life. I would request a sequel to this article where you explore the positive outcome of remaining within the darker range of the spectrum of emotion and contrast it to a stagnant just-under-the-surface unprocessed and unintegrated sadness that arises from too quickly closing off growth with a knee-jerk positivity.

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D. April 27th, 2013 at 8:52 PM #13

    John, that would be a terrific article! There’s one you might want to read, “Winnicott’s “The value of depression.” I haven’t read it for a while and I think I will have to dig it up. Of course, the invention of psychoanalysis was based on the finding that harmful symptoms developed when painful thoughts and emotions remained unarticulated.

    I would still leave room for the positive and non-magical value of positive-thinking. Where psychoanalysis hasn’t done much of a job addressing the freedom of will, positive thinking schools is all about will. Perhaps there is some room for something in-between.

  • Lisa December 7th, 2014 at 1:21 PM #14

    THANK YOU for speaking out on this issue.

  • Mary Tsonis, Ph.D. January 1st, 2015 at 8:38 PM #15

    Could not agree more with you Dara and the author, Dr Salter. While the power of our thoughts is undeniable, the positivity movement is cultish and those who preach it blindly and often with questionable credentials can be dangerous. Thanks for the reference to Ehemreich’s book. Will look into it.

  • Amanda C January 1st, 2015 at 10:58 PM #16

    one that talks back in a positive way when you are feeling positive, keeps me staying that way. But you have to recognize it to stay a head on that balance of wellbeing. 😊

  • Cheryl January 17th, 2015 at 12:17 PM #17

    You will find there are very few people who are capable of being with someone during their difficult emotion and are willing to provide a holding environment for distressing feelings. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is best to stop looking and expecting this from others as a form of self-preservation. Instead I’m trying hard to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion to help me get through difficult times.

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