#MsMindful: On The Perils Of Positivity
As if to counterattack the psychological assault that the current global pandemic has made upon us, there is a rising wave of positivity. Conversations around how the lockdown is a blessing in disguise are abundant. We are told repeatedly that it is forcing us to pause and re-evaluate the way we’ve been living; that this is a wonderful opportunity to turn inwards and focus on personal growth; that we are blessed to have this time with family, so on and so forth. Yes, we, at KZ, are guilty of perpetuation this thought too, with our #21DaysOfLockdown series on IG.
But, can we confess that for the last couple of days, we’ve been forcing ourselves to shoot the videos, because we like to stick to our word?
Anyway, I digress.
It feels like we’re not allowed to feel hopeless or anxious or fearful. Everything - from PM Modi telling us to light candles for solidarity, to celebrities on Instagram telling us we’re in it together - feels like an imposition. Because, TBH, we ARE alone in this. You’re in your home reading this. I’m in mine, writing this. And Mandira Bedi, who put out a post saying we’re all in this together, is in her home completely unaware that this article exists. But, it feels like if we let that emotion breathe, it will swallow us whole.
This mandate to stay positive through challenging times is certainly not new, and nor is it limited to a global crisis such as the current one. “Stay positive”. These are perhaps the most overused and abused words in human relationships. Someone in an abusive marriage struggles to get by, and we tell them to “stay positive”. Someone loses their job, and can’t find a new one, and we tell them to “stay positive”. Sick? “Stay positive.” Embroiled in an unjust lawsuit? “Stay positive.” Someone you love is dying? “Stay positive.” Got diagnosed with a terminal illness? “Stay positive.” Positivity feels like a balm we offer when we have nothing else to give, and sometimes, yes, it works. It eases the pain, at least temporarily. But, often, it doesn’t.
There’s a fine line between starving an emotion, and denying it. To give credit where it’s due, the proponents of positivity might well have the intention of gently nudging us to starve emotions that bring us down. But, over time, the movement has come to linger dangerously close to denying negative emotions.
Imagine you just found out that your partner and your best friend have been seeing each other behind your back. All this while, the three of you have been hanging out as always. And it gets worse - neither your partner nor your friend had the decency to tell you. You chanced upon a hotel bill for a two-night stay with their names on it. The bill is for the same dates your partner had told you they are going out of town on a work trip. You call your second closest friend:
You: Hey, good time to talk?
Friend: Yes, what’s up?
You: Where do I begin? I found this… [you tell them the story].
Friend: Oh, don’t worry dear! Things will get better!
At this point, you probably give your friend benefit of the doubt, and tell yourself that they said this incredibly stupid thing because they didn’t know what else to say.
You: I don’t see how! The two people I’m the closest to have stabbed me in the back!
Friend: Karma will get them!
You: Fuck Karma, man. I want to get them!
Friend: Revenge is never healthy.
You: Oh, come on! I’m pissed off!
Friend: Anger will only hurt you. It will all be okay. Stay positive!
How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of this positivity spiel?
One, you’d feel damn frustrated. How can this person not understand something so basic? How is one supposed to “stay positive” when their entire world is falling apart?
Two, you would feel even more angry! Whereas before you were angry at the betrayal, now you’d feel angry at your friend who is just not able to support you.
If you are incessantly told to stay positive, you will begin to internalise this message and stop reacting to the injustices you experience. You will begin to “stay positive” through lies, bad behaviour and in some cases, abuse.
Last year, while telling a fellow author about how I need to learn to be patient when talking to misogynistic men, I said, “I get so angry! It won’t work if I want them to read my book!” (which, FYI, is on how gender issues play out in romantic relationships).
She responded, “But, why should you not be angry?”
Why should I not be angry?
Because I’ve been taught that anger doesn’t serve anybody; that anger only hurts the one who is angry?
But, also sometimes, anger gets the point across. Though that’s not why one should feel anger.
Anger, sadness, hopelessness, and fear are feelings that every human being experiences at some point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But, these feelings invoke a sense of helplessness in the witness. And worst, accountability.
If I’m angry at something you did, then it falls upon you to fix things, to change your behaviour, and curb the source of my anger. Perhaps, that’s why we, as a race, are averse to negative feelings.
That said, do negative emotions always have to be transformed into positive emotions? Does every injury have to heal? I don’t know. All I know is that this pressure to stay positive sometimes feels like a snare, rather than an aspiration.