The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude
Why I'm so over "good vibes only"
Posted Nov 21, 2019
It’s hard to scroll through your social media feeds without being bombarded with motivational quotes. Bonus points if they are spelled out on a letter board.
Good vibes only. Choose happiness. Find the rainbow in the rain.
As a psychologist (and as a human), these quotes kind of irk me. They make us think that life should be all roses and rainbows; we just need to choose the right state of mind. And, by extension, if you are struggling, you aren’t trying hard enough. You just need to change your mindset.
The problem is, life isn’t all roses and rainbows. We don’t get to experience the good without the bad. As mindfulness instructor Jon Kabat Zinn says, life is about “full catastrophe living.” We must embrace what life brings us and learn how to experience the full range of human emotions, even when it’s not so pretty.
A 2016 study found that expressing negative emotions is adaptive and is associated with improved psychological health and adjustment. Conversely, avoiding negative feelings can make you feel even worse. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, calls this “the tyranny of the positive attitude.” In a 2016 Newsweek article, she explains that our culture has little tolerance for those who aren’t all smiles and sunshine all the time.
There is an expectation that people should always look on the bright side of adversity and be grateful for the positives in a difficult situation. This attitude is a double hitter for people going through a difficulty; first, you feel bad about whatever the thing is that is making you feel bad, and then you feel guilty or defective for not focusing on the positives and keeping an upbeat attitude. In other words, we feel bad for feeling bad.
As a therapist and an eating disorder specialist, I spend a lot of time helping clients identify and welcome in the full range of emotional experiences. In this “good vibes only” culture, so many of us have become disconnected from our emotions. We try to keep away feelings of anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, and disappointment. Rather than feeling happy all the time, this leaves us feeling numb. We live our lives in fast-forward, keeping ourselves busy every waking moment, so we never have to actually be with our thoughts or feel our feelings.
What would it be like to feel your feelings? To be OK not being OK? To experience discomfort and trust that you have the resilience to withstand it and come through the other side. This way of approaching life may not have the same letterboard appeal as “good vibes only,” but I think there is real power to bringing authenticity into our heavily filtered lives.
Facebook image: Max4e Photo/Shutterstock
Coifman, K.G., Flynn, J.J. & Pinto, L.A. Motiv Emot (2016) 40: 602. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9553-y