Why We Should Stop Enforcing The Tyranny of Positivity

Being positive has become a form of political correctness.

Credit: Sydney Sims via Unsplash

I am grateful. I am healthy, I have a beautiful family, a roof over my head, a fridge full of groceries. Life is good. However life is naturally challenging at times: challenging for me, my wife, my son. Yet, as many of us, I am not honoring the emotions that comes with stress, sadness, disappointment, doubt: I am succumbing to the tyranny of positivity which is unfair for me and for my loved ones.

Self-Sabotage and personal responsibility

For the last year, I have made an habit to practice gratitude on a regular basis. Naturally, that does not mean that things don’t go awry from time to time. While this gratitude practice provides me with a great basis for better acceptance towards life events, it also increases my sense of shame and loneliness when I fail to shake off a bad feeling when it arises.

You know those times, when you just can’t seem to accept your circumstances whether it be a decision that did not go your way, or a person that upset you: you just can’t let it go. The times when you can’t seem to be able to grasp the bright side of a situation. When you get to the point of feeling bad for feeling bad: this, my friends, is the tyranny of positivity at play. The times when you don’t allow yourself the time to heal, to be upset, or to vent just because negativity has a bad reputation. Just because society makes you feel guilty about complaining. Just because your friends tell you to get over it. This is literally self-sabotage.

It is interesting (and a little sad) how we tend to not allow ourselves to feel “negative emotions.” We tend to bury them, put them aside or attempt to numb them with food or other substances. Not honoring your emotions is unfair to you and to the people around you. I have noticed that I unfortunately transferred my lack of empathy for my bad emotions for the bad emotions of my spouse. The worse with the tyranny of positivity is indeed that you shame others for feeling bad. I sometimes do that to my wife as a defense mechanism, when I feel that I failed to make her happy. Instead of honoring her pain or her frustration I attempt to fix, to control, to make her pain go away. But it never works. Ever. It is unfair for her and it is unfair for me. In one of his recent video, Will Smith explains how he quit trying to make his wife happy and how happiness is both an inside job and a personal responsibility. This seems to be a winning method.

The tyranny of positivity hurts our children

The tyranny of positivity can be toxic when you apply it to your own children. As a concrete example, I am guilty of some form of it with my son. I want him to be happy so bad that I take some of his pain and sadness personally; as if his pain was the result of my poor parenting. This is a rather sloppy road from a parenting standpoint. When my son gets a bad reaction when he does not get what he wants, I have a very hard time empathizing with his frustration because I feel that my wife and I give him SO MUCH; much more than we ever had. It is sometimes very challenging to allow our son to be fully sad when we know how privileged he is.

Hard as it is, I have to refrain myself from preventin him to feel pain, sadness or frustration. It took me a lot of introspection to acknowledge that despite his privileges and lucky circumstances he was allowed to be sad. The last thing I wanted was to have my son feeling bad about feeling bad too. It is a real process to allow oneself to honor one’s emotions, good or bad (because emotions are not binary). Yet, I believe that this process, as a parent, must be mastered, in order to raise emotionally literate children in a healthy environment. We are still trying to master this process in our household. As we are all pretty emotionally intense individuals, it is not easy every day. A few weeks ago, I came across a video of a dad that is helping his daughter dealing with frustration. I was very moved by it and thought it would be a great tutorial to share to free your children from the tyranny of positivity.

Emotional agility as a solution?

The solution to fight against tyranny of positivity seems to be emotional agility. In order term, the ability to navigate your emotions, by honoring them fully. The path to authenticity is key for a healthy life and a healthy society. While gratitude is indeed necessary to set the grounds of a life of abundance, being able to navigate life by “feeling” your feelings freely is just as important. I will end this blog post by sharing the TED Talk that inspired this blog post, hoping that it will inspire you to step into your truth and free yourself from the tyranny of positivity.

About the talk:

Psychologist Susan David shares how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health and happiness. In this deeply moving, humorous and potentially life-changing talk, she challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and discusses the powerful strategies of emotional agility. A talk to share.

About the speaker:

Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, studies emotional agility: the psychology of how we can use emotion to bring forward our best selves in all aspects of how we love, live, parent and lead.

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