Put a Little Pep In Your Step! (Reflections on Harmful Positivity)
Updated: Nov 20, 2021
This piece was written in collaboration with my editor, Juanita Cox.
To those of you here who are weighed down with feelings of melancholy, despair, or general gloom: we see you. You are not alone if feeling positive sounds impossible. If you're feeling like nobody would notice if you weren't here, or like you're struggling more than usual, please tell someone. Your doctor, a trusted friend, or (for those in the U.S.) you can text the crisis hotline at 741741 around the clock.
You matter. Your life is valuable. We want you here longer.
When it comes to the topic of positivity, everyone has a different definition and approach to it. Perhaps your family growing up placed more value on grit and toughness than on joy and play.
Positive emotions, like happiness, joy, cheerfulness, playfulness, excitement, and optimism, are culturally demanded from those who present as women, while simultaneously used against us insinuating a lack of instinct or intellect if we're too pleasant.
When I think of positivity, I think of forced fun, fake smiles with dead eyes, and a mandate to keep my chin up and not bring the room down.
We need to keep our history of racism and white supremacy in view when we talk about feelings.
Positivity can be especially dangerous for people of color who often are told they are being too negative when it comes to issues of race and equity.
They may hear things like "not all cops are shooting Black people" or "not every white person is racist" or "we've moved on so much from slavery, why can't you just be grateful?"
Sure, we've seen *some* improvement (though too little!), but having to always keep things positive and hopeful gets exhausting and debilitating when reality dictates a different story.
The All Lives Matter movement is what happens when toxic positivity (see below) gets out of hand. Instead of sitting in suffering with Black lives, it becomes a pathway to deny anything that does not fit into the narrative that racism is a thing of the past and we all just want to live our lives in peace.
This factors in how and when people of color choose to communicate their feelings in a variety of spaces even when the topic has nothing to do with race because they cannot trust that their feelings won't be dismissed or overlooked for the sake of "keeping the peace".
Now imagine being neurodivergent and a person of color. The power of positivity to oppress people with multiple identities that the mainstream culture dismisses can make it a particularly violent weapon.*
In a recent Enclave discussion, we made a distinction between positivity (a mindset), joy (a state of being), and happiness (a mood). One member highlighted how much energy is required for positivity, and we often feel like it's a required performance.
We are cautious about magical thinking, which insincere positivity can produce.
Not everything in the world works out.
Toxic positivity is expecting people to feel or present positive emotions regardless of authenticity. As a culture, we have worshipped niceness to the point of diluting real joy.
Look on the bright side!
It's not so bad.
I'm sure it will work out!
It could be worse.
You've got a lot to be thankful for!
Stay positive and it will all work out.
First of all, if you've said these things to people and are cringing right now: when you know better, you do better. Take a deep breath and move on.
Acknowledging suffering is one of the most powerful things we can do for one another. Insisting on artificial hope is harmful, even dangerous.
Why is it so hard to express genuine positive emotion?
A dear friend of mine once told me that people don't struggle as much to enter into suffering with others as much as they struggle to enter into joy. It is difficult to celebrate with others when we're hurting, busy, envious, or insecure.
If you've experienced a lot of hardship, you may be more comfortable supporting others in difficult times than cheering with and for their wins. We don't have a roadmap for how to be okay or happy when others are not. We don't always believe that our joy is rightfully ours.
Accessing joy moves us into a place of freedom, which presents risks of being seen and, thus, judged. What if we enjoy ourselves too much and others get uncomfortable? What if we laugh too loudly?
When we feel real joy, we feel more like ourselves, which also feels like letting go of control that we've trained ourselves to grip to.
There is a decent amount of research on the topic of cultivating a positive outlook, which Brene Brown shared, "It isn't that the people who have a lot of joy are grateful, it's that those who have a lot of gratitude are joyful."
Authentic positivity is healing and beautiful, but many of us stifle or hide it. Others aren't sure they've ever really experienced a solidly positive outlook, and some of us are uninterested in it being offered to us.
It is much easier for us to receive hopeful words of encouragement if our suffering or hardship is truly acknowledged. We need to know our pain is seen to let down our guard.
Moods are contagious, and also...
We can't just put on a mood like a hat. Our whole selves are involved in how we view our circumstances and selves.
If we're not feeling connected to others, seen, or getting basic needs met (sleep, hydration, nourishment), then accessing positivity or joy will be challenging.
Taking care of ourselves cultivates joy.
Learning to trust ourselves, releases us to be present in the moment, where good feelings are available. We need more genuine joy, play, laughter, and positivity to make it through this messed up, broken world.
Let's explore why positivity and good vibes even matter and how we can notice them in and around us.
How do you define positivity?
What areas of your life do you NOT struggle to be positive?
What gratitude practices have you tried? How did they impact your outlook on life?
How do you bring forward positive feelings?
What role does fear play in your attempts at joy and positivity?
What one tiny thing could you try this week?