When “Positivity” is Negative
I have been noticing an ever-increasing trend towards encouraging “positive thinking” and “living from abundance”. This shows up in memes, videos and social media posts as well as the mission statements of several organizations. On the surface, it appears that the intention of the people who create and share these positive tidbits is to uplift, empower and encourage others to banish negativity. After all, most people do not enjoy feeling despair, frustration, anger, sadness and other types of emotional distress.
In the earliest days of psychology as a discipline, Freud referred to the “pleasure principle” by which people attempt to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. This is consistent with the drive to experience and prolong positive emotional, physical and psychological states and to avoid their opposites. It is why we engage in self-soothing behaviours whether they benefit us in the long run or not. It is also a significant part of the reason why people avoid their trauma by self-medicating with substances or problematic behaviours. Although we have moved on from Freud, the idea of pain avoidance endures and is conceptualized differently by the varying approaches to psychotherapy.
As I examine the push towards positivity as a therapist, a more disturbing picture begins to emerge. With all the pressure to “be happy” and “think positively” about everything, people are finding themselves lacking when they simply cannot pull themselves out of negative emotional states. This is highly problematic because the full human experience encompasses both positive and negative emotional responses. For this reason, when clients come into therapy to see me and report to me that their well-intentioned loved ones are urging them to “snap out of their unhealthy negativity”, I have to spend quite a bit of time explaining that indeed, the human brain is skewed towards negativity in the first place!
What has started to deeply concern me is that the positivity movement is not recognising simple brain development of the human being for which the hypervigilance for threats and upward social comparison that we all do makes perfect adaptive sense. Russ Harris’ “The Happiness Trap” examines this phenomenon in a manner that normalizes the tendency of everyone to avoid being cast out of their social groups by looking at themselves very critically. As the positivity movement does not acknowledge this, damage is being done to people by pathologizing their perfectly normal minds.
Recently, I called my own therapist and told him that I am experiencing “anxiety” for the first time in my life. His usual brilliant approach was to ask me “what do you mean by anxiety?” In talking about not just the sensations in my body but, everything terrible that was happening around me, we were able to determine that my brain was doing exactly what it was designed to do; manage the threat of an insidious virus amidst global geo-political tension and major life transitions. What would have happened had he chosen to just go with my self report without attempts to contextualise it? Would I be able to zoom out and recognise that it is perfectly fine to not be “fine”? Would I be expending a lot of scarce psychological energy trying to banish unfavourable thoughts and emotions? It is quite possible that I would have tried. It is even more likely that I would have failed.
Indeed, a huge part of my job as a therapist is to hold space for people to feel ALL their feelings. To witness their pain and allow them to give voice to it is in fact the most personally significant function of my relationship with clients. I do not try to help them run from discomfort but, I do try to help them feel encouraged to persevere with the knowledge that they are supported. Sitting with someone in their pain is truly a gift. Clients often tell me that their therapy sessions are the only space where they can give voice to thoughts and feelings that scare their relatives and friends or are just not acceptable to display.
I hope that we can move towards embracing both the positive and the negative in such a manner that we can all feel the entire gamut of the human emotional landscape without putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure to be “positive”. Indeed, we could all benefit from practicing to sit with others in their pain without attempting to distract from or minimize it. That is the truly noble, human thing to do. You will feel better in the long run by allowing yourself to truly feel.