Last week I read an article that Janet Lansbury shared called, “The Tyranny of Relentless Positivity” (Read it here). It piqued my interest and reminded me of the importance of not avoiding what is hard to feel.
Difficult emotions make people uncomfortable, both those experiencing them or those around them. That’s why they are difficult. Who would be bothered when the person next to them is happy or content?
But when someone is sad, hurting, angry, grieving etc.? Then people don’t want to have to deal with what is hard to face.
The article’s author lost her father as a teenager, and talks about how her lack of sad emotion was lauded as brave, even though it was much more damaging in the long term to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t in reality. Since anything but happy is seen as a “bad” emotion in our culture, then it is seen as good to always be positive and happy, never dealing with what is uncomfortable.
Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive…It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity.”
When did it become not-okay to be anything but okay?
I’m Telling You You’re Okay
This avoidance of anything that isn’t pleasant begins when we are little. People are so quick to tell kids not to cry, or literally say to their face that what they say they’re feeling isn’t real. “You aren’t hurt!” “It wasn’t that bad!” “Don’t cry!”
That’s not to say that a child can’t exaggerate sometimes, but if my daughter bonks her head in a doorknob and bursts out crying, my reaction should be a calm one of empathy and acknowledgment, “Ouch, I see that it hurt when you bonked your head.”
Dismissing her pain not only doesn’t magically make her calm down, but it just increases her frustration that I won’t acknowledge what happened and that she is feeling sad.
With enough avoidance and denial of unhappy feelings, we teach our kids that it’s wrong to feel anything but happy.
You Just Cry
I always will remember a particular episode in the car six days after Philomena was born. We had gone out of the house to get a change of scenery, and we weren’t prepared for all of the road construction in downtown Cleveland.
I was really sore sitting in the car, super emotional with all these hormones going crazy, I was exhausted, and it was almost comedic how no matter where we tried to go to get back home, we were just stuck in traffic bogged down by one construction project after another.
In the midst of the chaos I was becoming so upset and Ethan said, “Honey bun, if you need to cry, you just do that, it’s okay.”
He may never understand how much it has helped me during the emotional chaos that is postpartum to be able to be honest with my soaring joy and my weepy sadness. He lets me feel and express all of my emotions after a baby instead of denying all but the happy ones. It’s one of the most loving gestures my husband extends towards me.
The Fruits of Unrelenting Positivity
We live in a society full of avoidance of reality.
Young people especially want to replace the ups and downs of real friendship with superficial online interactions.
We have to have blaring radios and t.v.’s always on so as never to sit in silence and just be with our thoughts for a moment.
Food, alcohol, and drugs are often the numbing agents of choice, helping to stuff those difficult emotions down deep where they’re easier to ignore (for now).
Perhaps if as a society we were to be there for others in their pain, and to learn to stop avoiding everything but “happy” all of the time, we would be able to handle our less than positive emotions better and directly.
Maybe we wouldn’t be so scared of difficult feelings if they weren’t seen as “bad.”
Maybe if instead of desperately distracting ourselves we could face the sadness that life sometimes brings with more peace.
Maybe if we knew that it’s okay to not always be okay, we would be able to more fully heal from our pain and actually feel happier in the long run.