The Proliferation of False Positivity

My biggest pet peeve is the proliferation of false positivity.

False positivity litters Instagram, Facebook, magazine pages (wait, does anyone still read actual magazines??), blogs, web sites, self-help books, and almost all other media and advertising. We seem to be living in an era where we are told that simply having the “right” attitude is what will fix all of our problems:

Okay, first of all, no one should be taking advice from a fictional character, ESPECIALLY not Jack Sparrow (or Johnny Depp…ew!). Secondly, I’ll buy that the way we think about things affects our experiences of them, but I refuse to promise myself or anyone else that just “changing my attitude” will solve all my problems. In fact, I see this kind of bullshit approach to managing mental health and personal well-being as reductive and limiting. It tells me that if I’m feeling shitty, it’s because I just don’t have the right attitude! As a survivor of abuse and a person with diagnosed mental health disorders, I’m offended by the suggestion that my attitude about these traumas and struggles is what’s affecting my ability to heal or feel well.

And this is the problem, I feel, with what I’m calling “false positivity”. False positivity reduces our legitimate struggles into memes and clichés that essentially instruct us to ignore or disassociate from our problems. OR they create a sense of shame and blame that we can’t just “attitude” our way out of them!

Look at this bullshit! I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting, but it feels like anything BUT uplifting to me! If only I could simply use my supernaturally powerful thoughts to think away the abuse I endured, the chemistry of my brain, and the long-term trauma that’s resulted from my struggles with these things! Wow! Either I’ve been handed a magic key to happiness (nope!), or I’m being blamed for the trauma I experienced (yep!).

And this! This actually makes me angry. Like, I want to go punch something right now, because it’s so wrong to suggest that betrayal by someone you trust and love is actually a blessing or a gift! It’s the same with suggesting that my anxiety is a gift in disguise. Or that emotional abuse was a blessing because now it’s fueled this blog and my writing.

My anxiety is a daily and lifelong struggle. It was exacerbated to the extreme by my abusive partners. I did not asked to be abused. I have not fully recovered from that abuse and likely never will. And most of all, it’s NOT MY FAULT that people took advantage of me. Telling me that I should just “think differently” or see my experience of abuse (or the aftermath of it) as anything other than trauma is exceptionally upsetting to me.

I found these and many, many more after spending only about 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. All of them create so much unease within me. I’m frustrated that people seem to think that comments like the ones in these screenshots are helpful, authentic, or reasonable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more damaging than anything. They offer, at best, a temporary sense of relief from whatever mental anguish is ailing us, but the consequence of that is, I believe, a perpetuation or deepening of the shame/fear/struggle/anger/issues that we are trying to cope with.

You can’t solve real problems with fake positivity.

So what is an alternative? How can we offer better support and cultivate hope for people who are struggling for any reason? Why do we continue to rely on cute memes and catchy Instagram posts instead of addressing our problems in more authentic and lasting ways?

I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are the key to managing these problems better. For example, my writing with head/strong is based on relating my first-hand experience and offering insights into how I *actually* manage (or don’t) based on the  knowledge I have right now. You don’t have to swear like a sailor to be authentic; you just have to be consistently honest and allow yourself to admit fault, to share struggles, and to relate the real experiences you have.

Therapy can be a great tool for cultivating self-awareness and authenticity. Good therapists don’t hand you answers (which is effectively what the images above are trying to do); they help you work through your struggles and co-develop the coping strategies that work best for you.

Unfortunately, therapy isn’t accessible to enough people. And it can be really hard, even IF you can afford and find therapy, to get a counsellor whom you work well with! Just because they’re qualified as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health worker, doesn’t mean that they’re able to support you in the ways that you need. My experience is that I have the most success in finding therapy when I reach out to referrals from trusted people in my life and then set up what are essentially interviews with these prospective therapists. If we don’t mesh in that interview, then I try someone else.

My first therapy experience was with someone who didn’t care to know me as an individual. We made progress in some regards, but the lasting impression from that experience is more trauma that I carry with me. I’ve learned how to speak up for myself so much more now that I’m not willing to accept people like that in my care team or in my life in general. (‘Bout fucking, time, eh?) It’s been decades of learning to get to this point though and I know how lucky I am that I can access exceptionally high quality counselling as I need it.

After learning so much in therapy, mental health programs, and lots of hard work, I can’t look at bullshit like what I see on Instagram and buy into it. I guess I can imagine, though, that some people feel good when they read something like this:

At least, they likely feel good for a moment or two…

But really, how practical is it to “walk like you are made of magic”? Like, how the hell do you even do that? What does this have to do with improving your mental health (the screenshot came from a mental health support post) and how effectively does its message of “walking with magic” reduce the legitimacy of mental health (or any) struggles?

My god, I wish I could feel like magic all the time! I can’t. No one can! And I don’t want to feel a sense of shame for “failing” to walk like magic when clearly that’s exactly what I should be doing to fix my life.

What do you think about false positivity? Do images like the ones in this post lift you up in authentic ways, or are you like me and view them cynically (and likely cringe) whenever they show up in your news feed or wherever?

I plan to continue avoiding and remaining skeptical of messages like the ones I screenshot for this blog post. And my goal with head/strong (and in general) is to continue being authentic and offering real, tangible ideas for how to manage as an abuse survivor and a person with mental health problems—we can do so much better than telling ourselves that our attitude is the problem, instead of the problem being the problem.

xxJ

My attitude towards false positivity (artist unknown, unfortunately)


Fear Part 3: Things That Have Not Yet Come to Pass

This is instalment 3 of a three-part series on fear. If you missed the first two posts, you can read them here and here. I’m looking at how fear affects life in the past, present, and future. In this final post, I’m talking about how fear affects the future and the impact fear of the future has day to day. Thanks for reading! xxJ


I’ve been dreading this post.

Ha ha…

That was funny, right??

It’s also true! The anticipation of completing this discussion about fear, and the very raw and vulnerable feelings it brings up, is not something I’m keen to face.

Which is actually why I’m doing it, ironically enough.

Today, as I’m sitting at my desk with my “Happy Light” turned on full blast, a huge stainless steel bottle full of water next to me, and a completely quiet household (my kids are away with their father for the second half of their spring break), I’m trying to muster the courage to keep talking about my fear.

In my previous posts, I shared that fear is pervasive in my life. Looking at my past and how I feel about it now, and looking at my present circumstances and how fear plays into my daily life, has been challenging and I’ve appreciated the sincere and thoughtful feedback readers of this blog have given me! It’s hard to admit when you’re afraid. It feels like a show of weakness, doesn’t it?

I’ve talked about having an anxiety disorder before and I tend to see my anxiety as an ongoing sense of fear that rises and falls depending on what’s going on in my life. Anxiety to me is about the anticipation of things that haven’t happened yet, whether that means things happening a few minutes from now, or things happening a few decades from now. If you’re not a person with anxiety, then I imagine it must be hard to relate to the idea that someone can live in constant fear, especially if outwardly it appears that they have nothing to be afraid of.

But my worry about the future…my anticipation of stress and difficulties and unmet expectations and disappointments and struggles…is something I battle against in virtually every moment of my life. Even my dreams are full of anxious moments! Unfortunately, my past experience has taught me that I can’t trust the future. And this is what brings the most fear into my life—being unable to predict and feel secure about what comes next (or not feeling secure about my ability to handle whatever comes next) is what fuels my anxiety.

Do you live with anxiety? Do you possess a constant and growing fear of the future? Does this fear drive your anxiety and perpetuate the cycle of fear in your life?

If you live in North America or another “developed” nation (ugh…that’s such a gross term!), then surely you’ve noticed how adept our society is at sensationalizing things and using fear as a tactic to achieve greater political, legal, financial, emotional, or social power. We live in a world of bullies and fearmongers who constantly shove doubt, uncertainty, and discord down our throats.

Add to that the individual experiences of people in abusive relationships, those of us with legitimate mental health issues, people with learning differences, and anyone living in poverty, hunger, or addiction…it creates a terrifying picture and all of us start (or continue) to feel unequipped to even begin to manage the fear that surrounds us.

So what do we do?

Short term? Distract ourselves. We do some yoga, or we eat a snack, or we have a cup of tea, or a beer, or we go for a walk, or watch some TV, and we push our fears about the future aside temporarily.

We need long-term strategies to cope better though! And I think the way to address fear of and in the future long term is one of those things that’s simple but complicated at the same time.

Because the way to address our fears of the future is to face them and model the kinds of behaviour that reduce insecurity and support community and communication. That sounds kind of easy to do! Just be a decent person—don’t spread fear or panic—and say what you want or need, and we can nip this in the bud!

That idea gets holes poked in it by someone like me almost immediately! Like, how the fuck am I as one person, in a sea of billions of other people, who faces significant and highly individual struggles, supposed to enact the level of change required to address our society’s ongoing addiction to keeping people afraid?

Like, how the hell am I supposed to do that? Can anyone do that??

I was talking with a good friend last night. She and I have these amazingly real and vulnerable conversations together and yesterday we talked about how difficult it is to live our best lives because of our personal struggles and what we would have to face or give up in order to “save the world” (so to speak). Trying to face my future fears often feels incredibly hopeless. Just like it feels hopeless to look at the state of our world today and see the potential for positive and responsible change.

BUT

I don’t think that means that I should stop trying.

I don’t think that means that I should give up and let my fear consume me.

I do think that if we as individuals tune into our fears, recognize, and begin to address them, we could see change on a bigger scale.

Every time I get thinking about how I can reduce fear in my life and be a positive and contributing member of society, I come back to only one reasonable course of action: take care of myself as an individual first, so that I can then offer more to those around me and in the wider world.

To me, this means speaking up about my needs and wants. It means ensuring that I have reliable support in my life when I need it. It means educating my children about being empathetic and talking about world issues and how they can be thoughtful and responsible citizens. I means putting what little money I have available into the goods and services that I think are best. It means voting. It means protesting. It means writing authentically here on head/strong!

The “Things that Have Not Yet Come to Pass” aren’t real yet. But the fear that surrounds these things, that creates the fearful anticipation of these things, IS real and has real consequences in our lives. So in the end, addressing our individual fears of the future is, I think, the best and only way to change things for ourselves and for our communities.

If there were a magic button, or pill, or treatment that would help me stop being fearful of the future, I would be first in line to try it. But that’s not reality. Reality is that future fear affects me every day, and I suspect it affects many other people every day too. Be we can acknowledge our fear. We can talk about our fear. We can put things in place so that when we are feeling afraid we have something to fall back on. We can kick future-fear in the ass, even if it’s a fight we have to keep having until our fear is overcome by an authentic sense of security and safeness. I hope for you, as I hope for myself, that that level of security is attainable and that we can keep trying and not let fear be the ultimate winner.

xxJ


Reminder: FEAR IS A LIAR. You got this *fist bump*

Fear Part 2: Things That Are

This is the second instalment in a 3-part series about fear. Throughout the series, I’m breaking fear down and looking at it from the perspective of fear in the past, in the present, and in the future.  If you missed the first post, you can see it here. Thanks for reading!


What does it mean to experience fear in the present?

All the mindfulness advice and chit chat about “being in the present” and “staying in the moment” can feel impossible if you think of the present literally. If you consider that it is fleeting, with every moment moving almost instantly from future to present to past, you’ll never be able to be in the present. But if you think of “the present” more broadly, if you look at it as what you’re currently doing/working on/experiencing over a short span of time (a few minutes, an hour, a day), then I think it becomes easier to understand.

So, if we can all agree that “being in the present” means living in our experiences over a short and immediate amount of time, then we can start to think more about what fear does in that space.

After writing about fear in and of the past last week, I realized that it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to think about fear as something from before or as something that’s yet to come. But, I do want to think about how I can examine fear as I experience it now. What I ended up realizing as I prepared to write this is, that fear in the present isn’t necessarily about living through fearful experiences in the moment—I don’t know anyone who can mindfully examine their fear (or any other feelings) if they’re literally terrified, do you?—I think the key to examining fear in the present is to look at how it affects us from moment to moment.

Ruminating on past feelings, or past experiences of fear, is an example of how fear affects us in the present. This kind of thinking can quickly take over and crowd out things like productivity, confidence, or mindfulness. Likewise, if we spend our time feeling fear over what might yet happen, fear also hijacks the present.

If we’re not living in a situation where fear is a reasonable response (like say, if you lived in an active war-zone or with an abusive partner) but we continue to allow fear to sit at the forefront of our minds, then it sabotages our ability to function. Our fear response of “fight, flight or freeze” should only be stimulated in acute situations, but many of us stay in this kind of stress response for long periods of time and THAT is when fear fucks up our experience of the present!

I grapple with past fear and future fear in almost every moment of every day. Somehow these things can co-exist, even though that doesn’t seem to make sense. My anxiety (which is largely the trepidatious anticipation of the future) and my depression (which is mostly a product of my past experience) are ever-present, which means that fear persists throughout my daily life.

Being fearful in the present means that all my actions are affected by my fear. This sounds like a terrible way to make decisions, but there’s some benefit to keeping scary past experiences and apprehensive future possibilities in mind when deciding things.

Remember that bit on “Animaniacs”, the one called “Good Idea/Bad Idea”? I keep thinking about it as I’m writing this. Mr. Skullhead usually only had to grapple with things like: “Good idea? Stopping to smell the roses. Bad idea? Stopping to feel the roses.”


Classic Mr. Skullhead.

In real life, though, the consequences of fear can be much more serious.

Like, it’s a good idea to sign your kids up for swimming lessons and keep a close eye on them at the beach so they stay safe in the water. But it’s a bad idea to never go to pools and beaches altogether because of the remote possibility that your children might drown, even in shallow water.

Or, it’s a good idea to not climb into the leopard enclosure at your local zoo, but it’d be a bad idea if your fear of a leopard attack kept you from even looking at them from a safe distance with a barrier in place!

Or what about these:

Good idea? Not leaving a party with a stranger.

Bad idea? Not going out at all because you’re afraid that everyone will try to kidnap you.


Good idea? Taking a cab or staying home when you know you’ve had too much to drink or if you’re high.

Bad idea? Not driving anywhere, anytime because you’re too afraid that you might get in an accident even just popping out to get some milk.


Good idea? Letting your daughter stay home from school when her tummy is upset.

Bad idea? Taking your daughter to the hospital every time her tummy is upset because you’re terrified it might be appendicitis or a perforated ulcer or Cholera or Dysentery or cancer or…or…or…


When I’m in a bubble of fear…okay, maybe it’s less of a bubble and more of a vise-grip with razor sharp edges or some other horrible torture device…when I’m deep in the grips of fear, I really do get stuck there: fear becomes my present and my present becomes entirely obscured by my fear.

I lived like that for many years and it was awful.

It was worse than awful, actually! And I’d never want to go back to living in survival mode again! But I know that lots of people do live like that! Lots of people remain in bad situations or continue to make bad choices because they’re so deeply ensnared by their fear, no matter how irrational or ridiculous it may be. My fear kept me in unsafe and unhealthy spaces (both mentally and physically) for well over a decade. It’s not an easy thing to overcome.

So on one hand, fear helps keep us safe—it protects us and warns us and sometimes, we really need it. But our response to fear can be unhealthy and I think the biggest thing to consider when talking about fear in the present is that we have to tread lightly along the line between being too fearful and just fearful enough.

Because of my past experience and all of the counselling and learning I’ve done in the last few years, I now spend a lot of my mental energy checking in with myself to make sure that I’m thinking about and doing things rationally and responsibly. Using tactics like The Bizarro World Technique , creating Positive Belief Records, spending time outdoors, doing some physical activity, or simply pausing for a moment and turning towards my feelings are all things that help release me from the clutches of my fear.

I say “release” a bit hesitantly, actually. It’s more like “lessen” or “diminish” because fear still never completely leaves me. Or, if I work through it for one issue, it pops right back up for another one, so there’s this ongoing amount of effort I have to exert to keep it in check. As an abuse survivor and a person with mental illness, I continue to have to practice relieving myself of fear and trusting not only myself, but others, to keep me safe.

Remember, fear is a hungry bitch and likes to be fed! So I try to tame her growling stomach by feeding myself hope and love and awareness and mindfulness. I throw shitty thoughts into Bizarro Land or I take a break and check in with someone I trust. I search for moments with people whom I feel secure around and try to relish moments of relaxation, no matter how rare those are. I aim to follow the clichéd advice of trying to conquer my fear without letting fear conquer me, but I do it thoughtfully and with a mild amount of skepticism about following anything that pops up on a Pinterest board or Instagram feed.

Does fear continue to run your daily life? What do you do to help work through it in the day-to-day?


Next week, I look at how fear in and of the future plays into our lives. ‘Cause I seem to know a helluva lot about what that feels like and may have a thing or two to say about it.

Til next Sunday, keep kickin’ ass. Keep punching fear in the face.

xxJ


Another way to put fear in its place? Keep a “Brave Camoll” nearby. Because if you can’t be brave, at least he’s got your back.