It feels to me like there’s a bit of a contradiction when it comes to self-help and positive thinking.
On the one hand we’re told not to bottle up our feelings. Not saying when something bothers you is BAD – we all need to learn to be more open about our emotions, to be honest and authentic and not keep things inside.
On the other hand we have gratitude journals and endless inspirational images online – pastel starscapes and swirly fonts – telling us, sometimes desperately, to think positive thoughts, appreciate how wonderful our lives are and remember how lucky we are to be alive.
I don’t have anything at all against a good gratitude journal and I appreciate the value in focussing on the good things in our day to day lives, but sometimes I wonder if all of this positive thinking isn’t causing us to silence our not so positive thoughts.
When I’ve written in a journal in the past it’s been at difficult points in my life where I need to vent frustration or think through a problem. The act of writing helps me to clarify my own thoughts and at the end I normally feel lighter. I’ve given myself that space to be angry or sad or confused and letting those feelings out has helped me to understand them, process them, and move on. When the focus is always on gratitude, what’s gone well, and positive goals for the next day, I wonder if we aren’t actually doing ourselves a massive disservice, pushing the negative feelings away, trying to paint over them with uplifting mantras.
It feels like a strange time to be in, because you could say that we are more open about our feelings than ever – more and more people are comfortable now talking about their mental health struggles and we are increasingly accepting and understanding of things like anxiety and depression.
But what if you fall sort of in the middle?
You might not be depressed or anxious – perhaps you just feel lonely, or restless, or cross, or something you can’t put your finger on (like a midlife unravelling). You don’t feel it warrants putting yourself out there as ‘struggling’, and yet what’s the alternative? Heading to Pinterest to look at positive quotes and sunny pictures of meals you’ll never feel motivated enough to make? Brainstorming an inspiring vision board for where you want your perfect life to be in five years time?
While I do think that there is value in optimism and a positive mindset, surely there is room too for something that allows us to feel that life is sometimes sad and lonely and pointless feeling? I’m not saying we just all be negative and miserable the whole time, but just something that acknowledges that not everything can always be solved by listing three things that went well in your day, and that it’s okay to find life a slog.
Perhaps if we did more of this it would feel less lonely, because we wouldn’t have to imagine that everyone else was skipping through their day waiting for it to rain, just so that they could dance between the raindrops.
With so many positive thinking books (whatever you do do NOT read this one) and inspirational quotes oozing from the internet, I think we risk forgetting that the negative emotions are as much a part of the human experience as the positive ones. Our lives are constantly changing and evolving and we shouldn’t panic just because on any one day or week or even year, we don’t feel like we want to stroll through the park taking deep breaths and enjoying the beauty that is a single daisy facing the sun.
There will be periods of time and situations in our lives, where things feel harder and less joyful than normal and we have to be okay with that. It doesn’t mean things are falling apart or that you can’t get on with work and looking after the house, or that you can’t still enjoy things sometimes, or that it will last forever, or that you’re alone in feeling that way.
It’s normal and it will pass. Everything does. Even the good stuff. (Bummer.)
It’s a bit like that old adage about children needing to be bored now and again, not healthy to think that everything is always fun and exciting and uplifting. If we didn’t have down days we’d never know what good days felt like.
(I love the lemons comment – the lemonade quote always does my head in)
Just absolutely like that. I’m guilty of applying it to my children quite a bit – wanting them to never be sad and feeling like I have to try to spare them from any kind of negative emotion – and it’s definitely something I’m working on.
You know what I’m like, so of course I agree. It’s so important to be real about things, realise that anything negative is likely to be a passing phase, or something that can be overcome. And that things will/can get better. We can’t just skip through life, we need to learn how to get over the less pleasant things. And I guess with all the anxiety and mental health problems being more evident nowadays, people are less able to cope with some of these early stages of negativity, and they can escalate. Maybe we need to find a way to help people able to let these stages pass on by without too much trauma, so that those who are in the middle ground can stay there and not end up feeling that they should be feeling positive all the time.
I agree, and actually being able to accept and get through the more difficult times is a real skill that we all need to learn. I hear a lot about our current generation of teenagers, and how they lack resilience, and I wonder if this is partly because we have presented them online with this idea that happiness is the ‘right’ or ‘normal’ way to be, and that anything else means that there is something wrong with them?
Nice post. I do believe that a mind/brain can be trained, that changing a mindset or repeating phrases or visualizing certain things can create a different path. I mean that’s what advertisers and marketing campaigns thrive on. However, I do wonder also if the emphasis on positivity alone doesn’t breed complacency. And also, although the happiness gurus are just as likely to be men, it seems women are the target audience? And that smacks of — Smile, honey — that we must always be happy even when being mistreated or when dealing with real issues. And I wonder if it doesn’t subtley suggest that we should just be thankful for what has been given us, rather than demanding more and refusing to settle — to acknowledge that this isn’t enough for me and I want more. You have to want more before you take steps to get more. So, yeah, there has to be a balance.
Oh yes, I totally agree that we do have control over our thinking to a certain extent, and that a more grateful and optimistic approach can be really good for us, but I think you’re right that there has to be a balance. Have you read a book called Smile or Die? Someone recommended it to me on Twitter this morning and I think it ties in to a lot of what you’re saying. It’s about the origins of the ‘self-help’ culture in the US, and how it can actually be quite a dangerous thing. As well as on an individual level I think the risk is that we become complacent politically, and less likely to fight for change because we’re led to believe that WE are the source of any unhappiness. Excellent point too about the focus mainly being on women – a ploy to keep us quiet maybe?
That’s why it’s ok not to be ok. I’m all for positivity but I like a fair bit of honesty too. It’s given me a reputation in the past for being a bit of a moaner..this was at time when I was doing a course in positivity and trying to turn everything bad into something positive and failing badly. Nothing wrong with a good rant, or with feeling bad. A good old cry can be helpful too (but perhaps not for the bags under your eyes.) Everything in moderation. No emotion should be surpressed. My journals (pre internet) are pretty miserable, so why should I suddenly become incredibly happy just to please everyone online. I do love a good positivity quote or talk, it is uplifting, but real life can’t be ignored.
Yep, totally agree – it’s about honesty, and so by focussing on positivity all the time it can almost feel like we are lying to ourselves and to other people about the reality of our situation.
This is bob on Jo. I have had my fill of this for years now. I have had more than my fair share of shit from cancer, miscarriage, still birth, brain tumour, abusive marriage and sexual abuse in childhood and on the whole pretty upbeat about it. I am only 2nd generation but I have mastered British stuff upper lip.
Not everyone but I have had “friends” abandon me when I told them I couldn’t come to their party because I have just had a breakdown or I was tired from cancer. Citing we don’t need need negativity in our lives right now. Or saying I am manifesting ill health by what I am putting into the universe! WTF I worked for charities for 12 years and a kind person.
I think being positive is great it is how I have survived and thrived but like with any message it can be twisted into rot and nonsense in the wrong hands
What the hell, people would actually say those kind of things to you?? I’m appalled on your behalf – that’s absolutely shocking behaviour on their part. You’RE the one who doesn’t need THEIR energy in your life!
Case in point – I bottled it all up when I lost my leg in an bike accident because I was still with the rider and didn’t want him to feel guilty (he actually said that) and I was told by my dr. it was this bottling and not dealing that caused my depression a few years later.
Cheer me up by all means but let me cry when I need to.
Bloody hell, what a horrendous situation for you both to be in and I can see why you would struggle knowing how to deal with it whilst balancing the other person’s guilt. Blimey.
We stayed together way longer than we otherwise would because of it all, still, it’s what makes me who I am today (screwed in the head, lol, no……….I think) x
That was refreshing. I started suspecting that all these positive quotes and posts were hiding something! And I am guilty of this too, working in a secondary school, I’ve often pushed the “positive thinking mantras” on kids, who maybe just needed a place where they were heard and were told: “I hear you… I feel this too sometimes”.
I do wonder if kids would be a bit more resilient at that age if they were told more often that sometimes life is just a bit rubbish and it’s okay to feel crap about it?
I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel like we have to set examples for our children as well. It is hard to stay positive when things aren’t going well. But I think if we instill this into ourselves, it will rub off on our children. I love this post. Thank you for sharing!