Happy 2018, Everyone – Positivity is a Trap

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.

Batpup says that it’s important not to demonize uncomfortable emotions and appropriate expression of those emotions. She never denies her desire to chew on her brother’s throat when he takes her toys, because she’s very wise.

*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

Status Quo Warriors

There’s this disconnect I’ve seen and felt in specific types of conversations online. (And in person, but this is where I generally observe it in the wild because I don’t often go outside and talk to the flesh people.) I hang out in writing groups a lot for obvious reasons, so lately, the argument has looked kind of like this:

The OP: “Maybe don’t portray autistic people as rude, awkward geniuses incapable of human connection in your books and shows – it’s inaccurate and harmful.”

The inevitable flood of responses: “You can’t police creativity!” and “I do what I want!” and “It’s my book!”

I think about this a lot, because I see and experience it pretty frequently, and I’m not gonna say anything particularly revolutionary, but some of this is new to me. I think this disconnect starts all the way back with the way we raise kids.

In order to get and maintain power over a group of people for more than a generation, you’ve gotta train all the kids to see the world in a way that supports that power structure. To make little boys grow up to be properly misogynist men, for example, we first stunt their empathy and emotional intelligence. We tell them that all their feelings but anger are bad and weak and worst of all – feminine. We teach them that tears will earn them derision, not compassion. Did you know that people are statistically less likely to comfort a crying male* infant? That’s how early it starts. If we could find a way to get at fetuses and start indoctrinating them into gender roles before birth, we’d do it. Hell, we almost do. We throw gender reveal parties to celebrate which of these two narrow categories we’ll be training the future child for.

People do this stuff with varying levels of awareness. It was done to them. It’s the way things are done. This indoctrination was used on them, so it’s right to do it to their kids. Otherwise, they’d have to face some pretty unpleasant things about their own childhoods. They might see some elements of their own upbringing as old-fashioned or ignorant, but they might still tell a little boy with a scraped knee to man up and stop crying. They might still casually slut-shame their daughter on her way out the door to meet friends. Why not pass on these values? It never hurt them. Except it did hurt them.

My point is, we don’t just do this to make boys into neanderthals who are badly in need of a hug, or to keep girls barefoot and pregnant in the sandwich factory. We do this for every form of oppression that our societal structure is invested in. To make a society as mean-spirited as this one, we break kids and then we convince them that they were born wrong and required this indoctrination in order to be good. Goodness is a rigid thing that they earn by following the right authority and only exercising their own power over those who are beneath them in the hierarchy.

There are millions of loving parents who are ready to die valiantly on the “spanking totally isn’t the same as hitting” hill. Is there any parenting mantra more thoroughly engrained into American consciousness than “Because I said so?” If goodness and rightness are, from birth, associated only with the power to enforce them, and if explanation and negotiation is seen as weakness, is it any wonder that we get this weird interaction on the subject of social justice? The basis of social justice is opposing the beliefs and behavior that supports oppression. The original poster is, at least to some extent, not coming from that place anymore. They have no power behind their appeal, and they shouldn’t need any. They’re not exactly giving an order; they’re trying to share important information.

As far as they’re concerned, they’re just waving a shovel and asking for help with the mess that they can plainly see right there in front of everyone. The mess is toxic. It clearly needs to be removed. It would benefit everyone in the long run to remove it. Why wouldn’t you want to help remove some of the mess? In fact, for a start, couldn’t you just stop throwing more garbage onto it? Just a little less? Just one type of garbage? Why are you so invested in protecting this stupid pile? It’s maddening.

And, of course, the response they get for their troubles sounds an awful lot like a little kid shouting “You’re not my dad!” Social justice warriors are accused of seeing everything as a battle, but if they didn’t care about people so much that it hurts, they would not be doing this work. They spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to make change in the world, which requires a deep well of optimism and caring. Whereas, the folks that I will henceforth refer to as status quo warriors, cannot seem to view their efforts as anything but an attack. The replies are almost incredulous in their fury. “Who are you to tell me what to do? You can’t make me. Worse, you’re telling me I’m responsible to a group of people that I was taught is beneath me in the hierarchy. I’m allowed to hurt them. I have the power.”

I know this is kind of a ramble, but given how often I’m told to try to see the other side’s point of view, maybe it’s worth saying. I won’t entertain a world-view that says it doesn’t matter if some people are suffering as long as they’re the right people, but I can try to see why someone would be stuck in that place. If we all start there, and I think we all do to some extent, there must be a way through it. If nothing else, it makes me feel a little less angry to see it this way.

Puppy break.

Epilogue: Yeah, sure, good and bad are subjective, but they’re also kinda not. What if we stopped complicating it? You can go as deep down the ethics rabbit hole as you want if you really enjoy wrestling with the gnarly questions, but functionally, it’s not actually that hard. I really do think we can do so much better for each other and I think it’s always worth the effort to try.

*Assigned male infants, of course. There’s no room in this system for kids who don’t conform to the gender they’ve been assigned.