When was the last time someone told you (or you told yourself), “everything happens for a reason” or “it could be worse”? Maybe you were the person saying these things to a friend, which is something that we’re all guilty of. We’ve heard platitudes like these so many times that they slip off the tongue without a second thought. But what if seemingly positive statements meant to sooth us have the potential to do more damage than good?
HOW TO RECOGNIZE FORCED POSITIVITY
According to Medical News Today, forced or false positivity is “an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic”. It’s an idea that we see all over social media, but isn’t something so overtly wrong that our antennas go up. False positivity instead takes a more insidious approach, lulling our true emotions to sleep in a rush of flowery fonts and bright colors. We may not even notice how deeply the belief that we should “just focus on the positive” is ingrained in us until our emotions have reached a boiling point. So what exactly should we be watching out for, both in what we take in and how we speak to loved ones? Here is a quick list of phrases and affirmations that may actually be stunting your growth and putting a halt to any processing you need to do.
- “It is what it is”
- “Think on the bright side”
- “Everything happens for a reason”
- “It could be worse”
- “Think positive”
- “Just stay positive”
- “It’s fine”
- “Happiness is a choice”
- “Don’t worry, be happy”
- “The glass is half full, not half empty”
- “We all have the same hours in a day”
- “Good vibes only”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these statements. It’s the way that they are used that can be damaging. Positivity is wonderful, and we all need a little bit of it – a positive quote can go a long way in cheering us up! However, using these statements to push down pain or feelings deemed as “negative” means that we are rejecting a fundamental human experience. Life is not without pain, anger, confusion, sadness, etc. Harvard medical school psychologist and emotions researcher, Dr. Susan David, said it best – “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.
THE EFFECTS OF FORCED POSITIVITY
While it’s easier said than done, processing our emotions is a much better solution than telling ourselves or others that everything will work out in the end. It’s so easy to mask, reject, and replace our feelings with a quick fix. And if we go so far as to never process any discomforts, it’s possible that we’ve gaslit ourselves into a distorted reality. Unsurprisingly, this forced positivity actually stunts positive growth. We learn from hard situations and our reactions to them. If we never give ourselves the opportunity to take action, how can we expect to improve at all?
It’s even easier to project these false beliefs onto our friends or loved ones. “My best friend is feeling bad? I’ll tell them to look on the bright side and we’ll go out for margaritas. Problem solved”. Instead of listening to our friend, we assuage them with a pat phrase that sounds nice but doesn’t actually help in any meaningful way. Dr. Susan David describes this kind of situation as signaling to others that “my comfort is more important than your reality”. Essentially, you’ve projected a rose colored positivity filter onto someone else’s reality and negated their own experience.
Beyond minimizing and masking feelings (both in ourselves and others), forced positivity can eventually create a sense of guilt and shame every time we have one of those pesky “negative” emotions. “I’m a lucky person, I should be grateful for everything that I have. Others have it much worse. There’s no good reason for me to feel this way, I should be happy all the time”. Again, this type of thinking takes our humanness out of the equation, and leaves no room for self-compassion. We stop short of understanding why we feel a certain way and fall straight into a shame spiral.
WAYS TO BRING BALANCE
So, how can we more effectively process our own emotions and be there for the people we love when they are experiencing pain?
Hold space for your emotions. Notice them, acknowledge them, and listen to them. Same goes for friends and family. Sometimes listening and acknowledging is the first step to begin to process a situation and grow from it. Chances are your partner or your friend wants your support more than they want a solution.
Understand that you can hold multiple emotions simultaneously. Humans are complex, and we can’t expect our own feelings to be cut and dry. Give yourself grace when you don’t know how to feel, or are overwhelmed by your emotions.
Take stock of the messaging you are surrounding yourself with. If you think that those positivity social media accounts you follow are contributing to the problem, unfollow them. Don’t let an account dictate your reality.
Learn to be more aware of your thoughts and when you are actively avoiding something. If you’ve accepted a situation and are doing what you can to find positives within it, you’re probably ok. However, if you are avoiding the reality of a situation altogether, it’s time to reevaluate your thought process.
Don’t automatically judge yourself for not “making the best” out of a situation. Life can be hard, and not every situation needs to have something “good” come from it. Sometimes the most productive thing to do is to get through a situation as best you can. Learn what you can, acknowledge what you feel, and move on.
Positivity is double-edged sword. If used properly, it can uplift our spirits and get us out of a funk. But forced positivity can also mask pain and create mental health problems down the line. Next time you hear yourself saying “look at the bright side”, pause for a moment. Check in with yourself. You’re allowed to not be ok.