I am not the first to have criticised the “cult of positivity” phenomenon. I am, however, still surprised at how many cling onto the “always be positive” mantra and how badly supposedly ‘negative’ people are perceived in their professional and personal lives. We’re still expected to always be chipper in our work places and in our intimate relationships. I am really hoping this attitude becomes more muted, as not only are there times when negativity is warranted, but negative attitudes and emotions are often valuable. They’re not pleasant, but just because something is unpleasant doesn’t make it worthless. I will even admit that negative attitudes and emotions are usually not productive, but they are still strong signals that something is bad or wrong and we should address the cause of what’s making us feel so bad. The “always be positive” message is a pernicious lie.
There are always things outside your control.
Having enjoyed a relatively happy, supportive family life growing up, I was empowered by the people around me — especially my mother — to believe that I “could do anything I set [my] mind to” and if I was failing at something I just needed to work harder and put more positive energy into my projects.
The trouble with this message is that sometimes hard work doesn’t always yield the success you want in the way you want it to. This is especially true when there are other people involved. You don’t necessarily know how hard your competitors are working, and sometimes they outwork you. Sometimes you fail even though you work as hard as you possibly can and you work harder than anyone else. No matter how positive or optimistic you are about your projects, you still may fail and that’s okay.
When it comes to giving kids life lessons, the message should be altered to this: “Working hard doesn’t always get you what you want; but not working hard always yields nothing.”
In my personal intimate relationships, I truly believed that if I just worked hard at them and was the best partner I could possibly be, that I would have the successful, fulfilling relationships I craved. I was subsequently surprised when my relationships failed despite having done everything within my control to better their quality.
In times of failure, the “always be positive” mantra can become a type of victim blaming. In a world where we tell people that the only thing that matters is attitude, failure is assumed to be the fault of a bad attitude.
“Oh, you failed, did you? Well, that’s because you weren’t positive enough.”
That’s a nasty thing to presume about someone who may have done everything right and been thwarted by factors outside of his or her control.
Negative emotions are healthy reactions to bad things.
Being sad when a bad thing happens to you is a natural, healthy response to a bad thing happening to you. Apprehension and fear are natural reactions to risky, dangerous situations. Denying or repressing negative emotions can seriously jeopardise your wellbeing.
I went through a phase in my mid-twenties where I really tried to adopt a ‘positive mindset’ believing that this small internal change would reap large external benefits. This was the first move towards a personal and professional downward spiral.
Professionally, this simply lead me to biting off more than I could chew and the inevitable burnout this will always entail. Had I worked on my projects (at this time I was producing my own theatre show amongst other things) more slowly, and cautiously, several things would have happened:
I would not have run out of money so quickly. I would have put less pressure on my team and myself to produce output. I would not have rushed projects that needed more time. I would have gained more experience and tested the output more thoroughly before presenting this output to public. I would have built up my professional relationships over a longer period of time.
But because of my ‘Pollyanna’ style attitude to life, I didn’t believe that I would fail whether I rushed my projects or not. I was thinking positively — what could possibly go wrong? Putting a positive spin on everything in your life, even things that require serious, considered risk analysis and careful project planning, is dumb. It’s like not buying car insurance because you think you’re a good driver who won’t crash. It’s reckless and delusional.
In my personal life, this delusion led me straight into the most unhealthy and damaging relationship I have ever had. So many aspects of this particular relationship were wrong:
The way he rushed me into physical intimacy. His lack of consideration for my feelings and needs. The way he felt entitled to intimacy. The way he demanded the intimacy be on his terms and on his terms alone. His disregard for my physically well-being. His subtle bullying and belittlement. The fact that he allowed his friends to bully me by proxy. The way he abandoned me in unsafe parts of North London, and on several occasions invited me out with him but then made me wait for him for hours at a time. The fact that a few months since the start of the relationship, he appeared to be a very different person from the one I had started dating.
All these things left me with a considerable feeling of unease about the whole relationship. These negative feelings in my gut were telling me something was wrong. Yet, because I was so determined to make my relationship a success, I put a positive spin on everything. I believed my positive energy would make the relationship a success. I should have run like the f*cking wind from this walking, talking, physical embodiment of a red-flag, but my steadfast commitment to being a positive, happy, ‘low-maintenance’ girlfriend made me stay until I could tolerate his oh-so subtle belittlement and cruelty no longer.
At no point in my sheltered upbringing, had anyone told me that predators often disguise themselves as prey; that effete, Middle Class intellectuals are just as capable of exploitation, degradation and cruelty as anyone one else. My negative feelings were the only things that were telling me to get away from this person, and I deliberately disregarded them, pouring positive energy and commitment into this unhealthy romantic relationship instead.
It was only when I acknowledged the unpleasant realities of my situation, admitted to myself that I was deeply unhappy, and then did the right thing — even though it was incredibly painful in the short term — did my life finally start to improve again.
If you’re trying to be a better person, don’t forget that your negative emotions are part of you too. Though they’re not pretty; they may be the most useful tools you have.