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)


Bizarro World

As I said last week, the world is kind of going to shit. And within that chaos, we each have our own pile of crap to manage. It often feels like the shit is hitting the fan and everything is falling apart in our own lives and all around us. What a time to be alive!

When my life was dangling from the shit-covered fan of a messy divorce and major mental health problems, and I was desperately trying to disentangle myself from everything I had known for the past decade and a half, I started gathering an arsenal of tools and strategies I could use to cope better. I’ve already talked about some of these strategies, but today I want to share a new one. Here’s how I learned it:

One day in a therapy session, my counsellor turned to look at me and he asked, “Do you know who ‘Bizarro Superman’ is?”

I’m not exactly a comics buff, but I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge from watching Marvel and DC movies, and from many sessions of playing superheroes with my daughters, so I looked back at him and said, “Yes.”

And my counsellor continued… “Okay, so Bizarro Superman is like the exact opposite of the actual Superman. He exists as a reflection of Superman and does things that seem strange and unexplainable to the rest of us.”

“I want you to imagine that parallel to your real life, there is a Bizarro World. It’s a place where all the crap that doesn’t make sense and isn’t rational and is completely ridiculous exists. And when you come up against something that is nonsensical and irrational and completely ridiculous, you need to stop and remind yourself that it’s all just Bizarro World crap.”

And I went, “hmm” and sat with the idea for a moment.

My counsellor went on: “So when someone says or does something hurtful, just tell yourself that this is Bizarro garbage and belongs in Bizarro World.”


Random garbage bag full of Bizarro crap, obviously.

So I learned The Bizarro World Technique, as I’m now dubbing it, and it consists of doing one simple thing: reminding yourself that irrational thoughts and behaviour (whether done by yourself or someone else) belong in Bizarro World and not in the real world. The Bizarro World Technique, or TBWT because I’m lazy and want to use an acronym, is similar to using the Positive Belief Record (or PBR, ’cause who wants to spell everything out every time? Not this girl!) I talked about back in October of 2018. What TBWT has that the PBR lacks is a sense of humour. And humour truly is great medicine. (I think someone said something like that once.)

It’s not always easy (or appropriate) to use humour when dealing with trauma, but sometimes it’s the best way to diffuse tension, open up to creativity, or just get some big emotions out in a way that leaves you feeling better instead of worse—my counsellor and I had a good chuckle on the day that he introduced TBWT to me and I absolutely left that session feeling better than when I had arrived.

As I continue to manage the crap in my own life, and think about how I can do more to help the world, I’ve had to remember this technique of referencing “Bizarro World.” It helps me sift through the mess of thoughts I’m being flooded with and deal with the crazy behaviour I’m seeing from people around me.

I want to be clear though: I’m not saying that we should ignore the alarming and destructive behaviour happening around us. Likewise, TBWT doesn’t mean you should ignore your feelings, or stop working on addressing your personal trauma and your triggers. The technique categorizes these experiences and re-frames them into a much more manageable framework so you can detach from them emotionally and then think rationally about how to handle them. Plus, it might make you laugh! Bonus!

The Bizarro World Technique also reminds us that WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS. EVERRRRRRRRRR.

Recognizing the shitty behaviour of others through using TBWT (or a PBR, or talking to a counsellor, or journaling, or blogging, or talking with a trusted friend…) should be an act of removing any sense of obligation you might feel to fix or change other people. Throwing that junk in Bizarro World means that you recognize that it is someone else’s shit and that your job is simply to manage how you feel and what your behaviour looks like.

Really, it’s about taking ownership of your thoughts and behaviours, so that you can think more clearly and take action with intention.

So when your ex does something typical and shitty and you start to feel crazy, remind yourself that it belongs in Bizarro World.

When you start thinking that no one could possibly be as stupid/ugly/crazy/whatever as you are, throw that garbage thinking into Bizarro World.

When you’ve had enough of the political bullshit our bigoted lawmakers keep spewing, wrap it up in a black garbage bag and toss into the Bizarro Universe.

I sometimes even literally say the words out loud: “This belongs in Bizarro World!” And I won’t think you’re crazy if I hear you saying the same thing.

We don’t need to take ownership for other people’s bad decisions; what we need is more people living authentically in order to help humanity get back to thriving! We need more people to wake up to the Bizarro bullshit they’ve become encumbered by and start putting it where it belongs. What we need are minds free of Bizarro World clutter so that we can make confident decisions and act mindfully and with intention.

xxJ


I think this is an excellent representation of how to get that Bizarro World junk where it belongs. If only I had all those muscles to help me really kick its ass!

Turning Paper Into Diamonds

Or, “I Bet You Look Cute in that Emotional Tool Belt”

After my divorce, I spent some time working with an abuse counsellor named Alanna. She was one of the last stops on my roundabout tour of finding caring, knowledgeable support when I was at my lowest point and needed help getting up from rock-bottom. The partner abuse program she facilitated ended up moving to a different agency and she ended up moving elsewhere as well, but the months I spent attending sessions with her had a profound effect on my daily life.

The biggest take-away from my time with her has been a single piece of paper that I keep taped up above my writing desk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at this flimsy, white sheet and felt stronger because of it.

Good counsellors offer a wealth of helpful and insightful information, but great counsellors listen closely to their clients and offer little gems of wisdom that hit just the right note at just the right time and give the people they work with exactly what they need in that moment.

I bet you most of the time my counsellors do this and then giggle to themselves as they watch me unfold my understanding, thinking that I’ve come to some great realization all by myself, when really it’s because of their sly influence.

Damn they’re good!

Alright, I won’t keep you on tenterhooks (how’s that for a word of the day, eh?) any longer. Obviously you’re all dying to know what the hell is on this glorious, life-changing piece of paper.

Shit…now I’ve built it up too much! Ugh. Okay, it doesn’t matter, because even if you think it’s lame, it was/is totally the exact right thing I needed from this counsellor and she fucking nailed it.

Here it is, in all it’s simple glory:

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Pretty fucking awesome, right?

Okay, fine. It’s just a piece of paper with a some lines and a few very important words that suggest one simple idea: think about what your stupid, anxiety-ridden/depressed brain is telling you and then call yourself out on that bullshit and use objective proof to throw it the fuck out the window!

Or in different terms: figure out your self-critical belief, use that to identify what’s really true (your new, positive belief), and then prove to yourself that the new/positive belief is real by coming up with examples that support it.

It’s gotten to the point where I can just glance at this paper and be reminded that I’m not crazy. It reminds me that I can handle my shit. That what my abusers have told me isn’t the divine truth. That my mental illness doesn’t have to stop me from living well. That I can fucking DO THIS.

Feel free to borrow it.

Print it out, or draw your own fancy version, or scrawl the words onto a Post It and stick that shit up somewhere you’ll see it.

You’ll find that you’ll catch yourself glancing at it and thinking about its message, whether you have anxiety, or depression, or not. Whether you’re an abuse survivor or not. No matter your circumstance, you can use this tool to improve your life.

I like to think about techniques like this as tools that I keep in an emotional tool belt (a metaphor gifted to me by my other kick-ass counsellor, Daniel). My emotional tool belt used to be filled with rusty, dented, useless objects that caused me more pain and confusion than I ever needed in my life. I’ve been slowly scrapping those old, dysfunctional tools and refilling my tool belt with useful shit like this worksheet. I keep it next to my #2 Robbie (screw you Phillips screwdrivers!), a copy of Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”, my “DIVORCED AF” tank top, and the same stainless steel water bottle I’ve been slurping from for years (gotta stay hydrated!). I keep it with my dearest, most important possessions, but I know it’s better to share, so it’s yours to borrow now.

Use it to remember: you are more than your mental health diagnosis.

You are more than what your abusers say you are.

You are capable and smart and strong and brilliant.

You can change and you can get better tools to put in that cute-ass emotional tool belt of yours.

This paper may as well be made out of diamonds, because it’s become completely priceless to me. And I’ll keep it on my wall until it yellows and fades. I’ll keep it until I don’t need a daily reminder to re-frame my thinking, because I’ve got practices like this to grab from my cute-ass tool belt at any moment.

xxJ

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This is also usually found near my writing desk. It doesn’t fit well into my tool belt though…