How Positivity Can Sometimes Be Detrimental

Today on the #salty collective, Stacey Lu is talking about how positivity can sometimes be detrimental and what we can do instead.

mental health, photography of ocean with red dress chinese american model, ocean aesthetic, about positivity

With the stay-at-home order extended in most parts of the country, we are seeing an uptick of quarantine fatigue, as we pass the one-month mark of this order. More and more people are starting to become antsy at home, itching to go outside and stretch their legs, as the weather starts to warm up. Also as we see the increasing numbers of cases start to slow down, and the curve flattening a bit, it can give us a false sense of security, that it is now safe to go out and resume life as before. 

The curve is starting to flatten and we are seeing a slower rise in COVID-19 cases; however, this does NOT mean we are out of the weeds. We must continue to abide by the stay-at-home orders to maintain and continue to lower infection rate until this virus has been fully contained, eradicated, and a cure has been found and readily available. This also means, get comfortable folks, because we are going to be in this for a looooooong while. 

I’ve previously given some advice on how I have been dealing with all of these emotions related to quarantine, but they might not have been inclusive enough for everyone. I understand the stir-crazy feelings induced by our current situation, and I know there are so many circumstances out there that are being exacerbated because of being cooped up in close quarters in situations that are less than desirable. And while you are feeling the full gamut of negative emotions, sometimes the last thing you want to hear is someone telling you to just “look on the bright side,” with a heavy dose of positivity. Some days are tolerable, but other days, seeing people preaching positivity is just plain annoying. Believe me, I’ve been there too, and as a believer of positive messaging and thinking, I also know when it can be counter-productive.

mental health, photography of ocean with red dress chinese american model, ocean aesthetic, about positivity

Sometimes the slogans of, “Just be happy!”, or “Be grateful!”, or “Everything will be fine!”, while said with good intentions and positivity, it can be detrimental to those with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health symptoms that lead to negative thoughts and feelings. Too often, these seemingly harmless words of “affirmation” can actually come off as dismissive to the person receiving them when they are going through a tough time. Positive messaging has become too simplistic and it makes us believe that feeling sad or angry or any negativity is a bad thing. This way of thinking propels us deeper into the spiral of guilt, because not only do we already feel bad, but now we also feel bad about feeling bad. 

In an article on Newsweek, they cite a quote by Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, who states: 

“It’s ‘the tyranny of the positive attitude.’ By TPA, 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 damage.”

mental health, photography of ocean with red dress chinese american model, ocean aesthetic, about positivity

Additionally, trying to make someone feel better/positive or improve their mood by utilizing positive psychology is often only helpful temporarily. It acts as a short term treatment for the symptoms, and not the cause of the root issue. The symptoms depression and anxiety may be kept at bay for a short while, but they may quickly return, as the dismissive positivity is alas, not a cure. The issues have not actually been dealt with. 

mental health, photography of ocean with red dress chinese american model, ocean aesthetic, about positivity

If you or someone you know is currently going through a rough patch and the positivity, sunshine-y, happy-go-lucky, woo-woo, positive messaging isn’t working, or even backfiring, here are a few things you can do instead that may help.

  1. Understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that the problems people face are all unique and complex. Especially when trying to help someone else through their dark days, keep in mind that blanket statements sometimes may not be effective. Exercise empathy and compassion whether you’re helping someone else or going through something yourself. 
  2. Sometimes we need to sit with our emotions for a while, and that length of time is different for everyone. Take as long as you need to fully experience the emotions, cry, scream, sulk if you need to. Do not try to rush and brush over negative emotions, it is completely okay to not be okay. It is impossible and against nature to be happy all the time. Do not feel guilty for feeling bad.
  3. Acknowledge the thoughts that are running around in your head. Pinpoint the narrative that you are telling yourself and trap it. Do not allow yourself to spiral and overthink into a black hole. Separate yourself from the thought; you are not your thoughts.
  4. Get to the root of the issue. Is this something that has been reoccurring? Or is it something new? Monitor, trace, and identify what your triggers are. 
  5. Know that you are not defined by the symptoms and these are not flaws. Thoughts and emotions is not who you are. Human beings have always and will always have various emotions, but thoughts alone can not destroy you. Accept them and do your best to move on, but if you feel like they are too consuming…
  6. Get professional help. It is 1000% okay to ask for help, and it may be the best thing you can ever do for yourself. We may not always have the tools or the right environment or mindset to be able to help ourselves. Everyone needs a little guidance sometimes, but sometimes talking to a friend is not enough. Reversely, if someone is coming to you for help, and you feel ill-equipped to provide the appropriate counsel, refer them to a professional. (See a list of resources at the end of the blog.)
mental health, photography of ocean with red dress chinese american model, ocean aesthetic

There is a time and place for positivity and positive messaging, but be mindful of when and to whom you are relaying it. There’s merit in trying to cultivate a positive perspective and outlook on life, and seeking the silver lining in unfavorable situations; however, it is also realistic to know that life will always have its ups and downs. Resistance to the downs can lead to further negativity and be a slippery slope. Remember that the ebbs and flows of life are what make it the human experience.  Everything is temporary, and it goes both ways: you won’t always be happy, same as you won’t always be sad.


Psychology Today:
Better Help:
Talk Space:

Also check your health insurance website for a list of in-network therapists and psychiatrists. Many should be offering virtual sessions during this time, and some provide sliding-scale pricing. 

Photos by Marion Santiago

By Stacey Lu (@stclu)

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