Busting the Myth of Fake Positivity

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For the past two decades, the rise of life coaches, motivational speakers and inspirational influencers has been phenomenal. While a lot of those professionals might have good intentions and many of their initiatives are a legitimate source of self-improvement, in a non-regulated industry that has reached over $12 billion in 2019, there are a lot of players exploiting people’s “hope for a better life” to feed their own interests. For those people, the easiest thing to sell is positivity. “Be positive” is a message being delivered to us directly and subliminally, even during the most difficult and harshest times of our lives.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, We are persistently being flooded with motivational posts by people who are seemingly on top of it all; those who are committing to a workout routine, those who are finding the perfect balance between entertaining their children and working from home, or those who are reaping the benefits of this free time and learning new skills online. It seems like we are being drawn into a competition of positivity and achievement with the pressure of becoming an outcast if we are not part of the game.

When in confinement, we are prone to spending more time on social media platforms. While this may seem like a harmless source of entertainment, our minds are programmed to compare our happiness to reference points that may not be truly representing reality, and this can have a harmful impact on our mental and physiological health. Why is this dangerous? And what should you know about it?

The truth of the matter is, not everybody is adjusting to the pandemic lifestyle: While some people are baking from scratch and teaching foreign languages to their kids, others are struggling to keep their heads above the water. People are dying every day, and that by itself is devastating. Many are losing their jobs. Front-liners are out there daily, risking their lives for the sake of others.

So, can we simply take a moment to catch our breath and admit that it’s perfectly normal to be angry, sad, afraid, overwhelmed and any other combination of emotions right now?

There is a collective awareness that the world is going through a major shift, and usually, any change triggers resistance, depression and anxiety. Feelings like irritation, resentment, anger, and fear are actually very crucial moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back.  They are a wake-up call that tells us exactly where we are stuck. This terrifying clarity is more amplified nowadays since the challenges are many and as atypical as the pandemic itself.

Today’s reality reaffirms the unsafe truth that our society often views half of our feelings as undesirable and unworthy of acknowledgement and expression: just wear your rose colored glasses and it will waiver the storm.

Let us highlight a very important point here: we are not attacking or devaluing positive psychology but rather pointing out the difference between positive thinking and “fake positivity”.

University of Michigan psychologist, Christopher Peterson, a founder of the positive psychology movement, illustrated the difference between realistic and unrealistic optimism: Realistic optimism hopes for the best while staying attuned to possible threats, whereas unrealistic optimism ignores such threats.

Positive psychology does of course have its advantages: it may inspire us to take necessary risks and broaden our horizons. However, a positive mindset does not attempt any denial of painful feelings. A healthy and authentically positive mindset allows room for unpleasant feelings while preventing them from getting a complete hold on us. With an encouraging, supportive hand, a positive mindset pushes us gently to consider the other sides of the situation and to avoid the slippery slope of self-pity.

Unfortunately as it grew more and more popular, positive psychology has taken on a new tone—one with a more simplistic message of “positive thinking”. The idea of being “happy if you choose to” has been so deeply integrated as a way to improve performance, coping skills and mental health, that it has backfired and is nowadays being used to shame people with depression, anxiety or even the occasional negative feelings.

It’s “the tyranny of the positive attitude (TPA),” says Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College. “I mean that our culture has little tolerance for those who can’t smile and look on the bright side in the face of adversity.” Even in cases of profound loss, Held says, people are supposed to get over their sadness within weeks, if not sooner. “The TPA has two component parts: First, you feel bad about whatever pain has come your way, then you are made to feel guilty or defective if you can’t be grateful for what you do have, move forward [or] focus on the positives.” This is the double punch, and it’s the second part that does the most serious damages; damages such as dealing with illness. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich cautions in a 2009 book, the prevalent assumption that positive attitudes allow us to “think our way out of” illnesses has an unrecognized dark side: it might lead people who do not recover to blame themselves for not being more cheerful.

In her TED Talk, “The Tyranny of False Positivity”, Susan David, Ph.D., a Psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, states: “We are caught up in a rigid culture that values relentless positivity over emotional agility, true resilience, and thriving. And when we push aside difficult emotions in order to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop deep skills to help us deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Research has shown that accepting all of our emotions, especially the difficult ones, is the basis to resilience, prosperity, and genuine happiness.  When people are permitted to experience true emotions, their commitment, imagination, and innovation flourish. As Dr. Susan David states, “diversity isn’t just people, it’s also what’s inside people, including diversity of emotion. The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions.”

Evading negative emotions buys short term advantage at the price of long term pain. Picture someone who drinks alcohol or takes drugs to reduce or avoid undesirable feelings. Continuous, long-term use results in the reduction of the number of dopamine receptors in the brain in order to regulate the amplified dopamine level in the system. This eventually leads to a state known as “anhedonia”, or a lack of pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable. This depressive emotional situation can drive the user to take drugs in a responsive attempt to experience pleasure again. Bottling up emotions is exactly the same. It may “work” on the short-term, however, on the long-run, the person will develop a bigger problem: unresolved and amplified negative feelings that will re-surface in various unhealthy ways.

Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back when things don’t go as planned. And today, when hardly anything is going as planned, how can we bounce back from a reality if we refuse to acknowledge it? How can we truly give ourselves the chance to develop the essential skills needed to deal with the world as it really is? We have to picture ourselves as athletes training for a marathon. We cannot only train by running, we have to stretch all the necessary muscles. It’s time to move towards a more flexible, less rigid approach to our emotions. It’s time to stop arranging them in baskets labeled “good” and “bad” and to start embracing emotional agility. When we learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what we’re experiencing, we can bring a considerate open attention towards the distressed parts of ourselves and make sensible choices about how to respond. Sit with your emotion, identify it, accept it, and most importantly realize that, much like everything in life, it is transient. When you go through this practice repetitively, you will give yourself the chance and the trust to investigate the emotion and respond appropriately.

As Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor put it: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”



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