A lot of people decide to be more positive as a New Year’s resolution. They typically get started by buying planners full of inspirational sayings, starting gratitude journals, and reading fluffy articles about the magic of forgiveness and letting go of grudges, and it may all be a serious mistake. Positive choices and positive actions and positive thinking are all absolutely awesome when used correctly, and they’re great things to encourage in your life and support in other people’s lives*. Positivity culture, though, is the big fancy-lookin’ blanket that too many folks try to toss over their messy boundaries and messed-up values.
Resolving to be more positive in 2018 sounds great and enlightened, but it’s really important to think about what that means before committing to it, because setting unrealistic standards for your emotional state is a very good way to have a breakdown or eleven before February comes around and then to wind up feeling like a failure. Feelings cannot always be positive. Brains don’t work that way and people don’t work that way. It’d be kind of a nightmare if we did, because being positive about everything and denying “negative” emotions is dangerous and counterproductive.
One of the major ideas that gets tossed around as positive thinking is that no one can make you angry or hateful or hurt without your permission, but A: It isn’t even a little bit true and B: It completely misses the point.
Those uncomfortable emotions and reactions serve a purpose, and refusing to feel them is not good. Similar to the way that physical pain warns us that we’re injured or under attack, the uncomfortable feelings warn us that something is wrong. Emotions are amazing, and we need all of them to live balanced lives. Even the most zealous of positivity preachers will generally admit this, but in reality you’ll find very little support for a full range of emotions in the general positivity culture and a whole lot of victim blaming. Oh, so much victim blaming. There are few things that gas-lighting friends and relatives love more than the gospel of positivity and self-determination. Unfortunately, the victim blaming logic is built right in, and people use it like the weapon that it is. “Don’t let them make you bitter.” “Don’t let them make you hate.” “Don’t let your trash-can of an uncle make you have a disruptive panic attack at the thanksgiving dinner table, dear.”
People learn to police themselves the same way. We’re encouraged to believe that if we hate anyone we’re just poisoning ourselves and hoping that they’ll die, but even hate serves a purpose. Hate isn’t a big bad wolf living in your soul – It’s your emotional guard dog, and you might be busy starving it to death instead of letting it fight for you. The fact that some people take their overgrown and rabid hate into other people’s homes and attack them with it does not mean that all hate is evil.
Reluctantly allowing that negative emotions must happen sometimes, and that “humans aren’t perfect,” isn’t enough, and it sure doesn’t stop folks from throwing their positivity in the faces of those they want to silence, or using it to blame themselves for not walking unscathed through someone else’s trash fire. Nobody can make your skin blister and weep under the flames if your heart is in the right place, right?
Did you know that your brain – a physical organ in your body – is where every one of your emotions dwell, and it can be wounded by things that happen to you just like your skin can? It is necessary for our evolutionary survival for the brain to change its function based on what we experience. Emotional trauma is an injury in one of the most delicate, complex, and vital parts of our bodies. It’s where anything that could reasonably be called a soul lives. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can break your brain. Some of those wounds can be healed, and some cannot, but walking it off usually isn’t a long-term solution.
The really cool part about our brains changing based on our experiences and habits is that we can develop parts of it like a muscle, and sometimes heal it in a way that is similar to doing physical therapy. Consistently redirecting our thoughts in ways that make us feel good can strengthen pathways that can make us happier or more inspired or peaceful more of the time. It is not magic. It has limits, and not everyone’s brain or body can do the same stuff, but it is really amazing. The bad thing about the cult of positivity is that it does not harness this awesome power for your benefit. It does the very opposite, in fact, and it has everything to do with the values that tend to hide underneath it.
For example, which of these choices is probably better for you?:
A. Putting up with your mother berating you, violating your boundaries, and generally putting you down because she’s your mother, and you’re being the bigger person, and only you can choose to let her make you bitter, or…
B. Holding her, and the family members and friends who enable her inapropriate behavior, responsible for their actions and booting them the hell out of your life until they choose to behave better.
I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the one your badly behaved mother and all those relatives probably raised you from infancy to think is moral, because that’d be majorly inconvenient for them. It’s the one they’ll have taught you is selfish and dramatic and super unreasonable, because that is very convenient for them. Unfortunately, positivity culture is deeply tied in with this blatantly unethical state of affairs, and the same pattern is repeated everywhere in society. Positivity culture doesn’t really care about who’s right and wrong, just about keeping the peace, usually at the least disruptive person’s expense. It’s self-fulfilling defeatism masked as practicality, and it is a major reason that the worst people have so much unchecked power. We let them. I shouldn’t have to say it, but if your positivity makes life easier for people who hurt others and demands more emotional work from those who cause the least harm, it’s not a force for good in the world and it isn’t actually positive at all.
So, by all means be positive, but don’t join the ranks of people who use it to prop up shitty values and behavior. Be positive as fuck and piss off the right people. Hold your friends and family accountable even when it’s inconvenient. Be positive enough to defend yourself and others, draw lines in the sand and then burn bridges when they’re crossed, and not to blame yourself for hurting when someone hurts you. Comfort yourself when you’re sad instead of willing it away, and be your own advocate. Be positive enough to trust your judgement about how other people can treat you and not to make sacrifices for people who refuse to respect your boundaries. If they want your time and energy, they can act better. If they don’t, that’s their choice.
In extreme cases, let your emotional guard dog do its job and protect you, because you may need to hate some people. You may not always benefit from forgiving, and that’s totally okay. If you find that you can’t stop dwelling on your anger and pain, consider that maybe someone or something in your life is sitting there in your heart like shrapnel and needs to be removed, or maybe you’re feeling the scars from something in the past and need support in therapy or from medication. Seeking care when you need it is positive as hell. If your pain never fully heals, try not to blame yourself. Some things hurt forever, but it’s the fault of whoever caused the damage, not the person who lives with it.
If you want to really make sure your positivity comes from a good place, base it on a solid understanding of consent, because that’s how you can figure out where your rights and boundaries end and another person’s begin. Consent and healthy boundaries go way beyond romantic relationships, and most people aren’t taught to truly respect or understand either. Learn to recognize victim blaming and gas-lighting, because they can easily sneak into your positivity under the guise of common sense, practicality, or tough love.
If you really want to just think more happy thoughts and feel better, which is totally a fine goal, then set about learning how to take good care of your brain and encourage the patterns you like in your thinking, just remember that all brains and bodies have different needs and limitations. You’ll probably need to experiment to find your preferences and limits, and you’ll definitely need to do your best to be kind and understanding with yourself through all of your emotional states.
*Encourage positive stuff in other people’s lives only with their permission. Seriously, respect their boundaries even if you’re really certain that they’d feel better if they listened. You could even be right, and pushing their boundaries would still be the wrong thing to do.
Writing days this past week: 3