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)


Is Fixing the World the Ultimate Therapy?

Watching or hearing the news is very difficult for me. So much so, that I go through long periods of time where I dissociate completely from what’s going on in the world. In those times, I tell myself that it’s okay to not listen and to turn away; that I’m doing it because I have my own shit to deal with and can’t bear the burden of worrying about anyone outside my intimate circle. I say to myself that in meeting my own needs and working on being a better, healthier person, I’m contributing to society in a positive way and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

And at the same time, I long for connection beyond my own four walls. Beyond the scope of my emotional landscape, and beyond the needs and wants of my own circle of family and friends. I want to care about more than just me.

So I go through waves, of pulling back, then diving in, then pulling back, then dipping my toes again. I enact this cycle between willful ignorance and determined understanding. I dance a dance of pushing myself to face my triggers and then I try to manage when they inevitably trigger me.

I think the world is in crisis. And I’m not the only one who believes this. Most recently, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has received widespread attention for her no bullshit conversations about climate change and the crises humanity faces. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come into the limelight, proposing the radical New Green Deal and using her position in American politics to call out the bigoted scum that currently make up much of the Oval Office and the elite class in the US in general. And what about Michael Moore? Naomi Klein? David Suzuki? Bill McKibben? Al Gore? Tarana Burke? Indigenous pipeline warriors? Black Lives Matter? #metoo? #timesup? So many people are speaking up for humanity!

Today I came across this scathing article by Holly Truhlar, “Mainstream Psychology Can Go Fuck Itself”, which essentially calls out the upper class/white/cis community for its blatant disregard of the issues humanity at large is facing, its misappropriation of “self-care” practices like yoga, and its willful ignorance surrounding both the climate crisis and our collective crisis of understanding and lack of community.

My inclination after reading this, was to go curl up and hide. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. I don’t want to hear about any of the devastating and difficult shit that’s going on in the world right now. But I also feel deep shame that I can’t handle this stuff. I feel a profound sense of responsibility to do more than just look after myself and my kids. I have an intense longing to connect with people beyond my community and feel like I’m contributing in a meaningful way.

I am acutely aware that I have privilege and that means I’m afforded daily luxuries and the ability to practice “self-care” and to “work on myself.” But the truth is that I don’t know how to balance dealing with my own, legitimate trauma, and the role I see myself as having with helping to alleviate the world’s collective trauma.

I was convinced for so long that my life didn’t have meaning. I felt worthless, ignored, used, and small. I learned to believe that my needs were inconsequential and that I didn’t have the capacity to do anything of consequence. This is the frame of mind I lived in at the hands of my abusers for well over a decade. I always have been and always will be a Highly Sensitive Person; I know that I feel and experience things more deeply than others. I know I was and would have been this kind of person even without being a victim of abuse. I know being an HSP is likely a key reason why I was such an easy target for narcissists and emotional abusers. And I know that it makes me a person uniquely positioned to recognize the struggles of others, which gives me the choice to take action, or not.

I’ve been struggling with this sense of knowing I “should” do more and not feeling capable of doing it for a very long time now. My efforts  to alleviate this struggle from my life have manifested in me trying things like what I now call “white woman spirituality”—using crystals, attending or hosting Red Tents, visiting mediums, using “daily affirmations,” reading Tarot cards, and so on. It’s also resulted in half-assed efforts at “going green” and being more “eco-conscious.” At shyly suggesting to others that they use “natural” remedies and spending more money on “green” alternatives to things without really taking the time to investigate their claims of being “eco-friendly.” I looked into co-housing and joined food basket programs, but never actually stuck it out. I’ve now moved myself out to a semi-rural location and am planting gardens and hoping to raise chickens and honeybees, or maybe some goats or a few ducks.

What the hell am I doing???

None of these things, past or present, has had a large-scale impact on the world. And it now feels increasingly hollow to say that the best I can do is look after myself and my kids; to model for my own two children the kinds of morals and behaviours that I think are right…

I feel like I can no longer separate things like caring for the environment and championing action that addresses emotional abuse. They’re really one in the same! To care about each other means caring about the world. Authentic wellbeing can only come from sincere connection to who you are and how you fit into a community. Disorders like narcissism can only be healed by changing the ways in which we engage with each other and with the world. If I’m going to take responsibility for helping others deal with emotional trauma, then part of that has to include going beyond instructing us to work on ourselves as individuals; we have to understand how are traumas are the product of the world’s collective state of crisis.

I know I sound dramatic, but I believe it’s fully warranted!

I can’t be “well” in a world that is broken and neither can anyone else. If we all continue to only focus on ourselves, then we can’t ever really be healthy. As Holly Truhlar points out in her article, if our psychologists and mental health professionals (not to mention politicians, media, educators, and all “personal wellness” professionals) are not talking about and addressing the oppressive systems of the world, the climate crisis, and social collapse, then they are ignoring a key source of trauma and fear that we are all living with!

In the words of the amazingly wise Greta Thunberg:

“Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money… It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few…You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes…”

There’s no sugar-coating that, but in general, our response is obstinate ignorance because we have the luxury of doing so.

I’m one step away from being a member of the ultimate privileged class. By virtue of being a woman, I face hardships that a white, cisgendered, upper-middle class man would never face. But my trauma scratches the surface of what other, less privileged people experience. My trauma, although it’s legitimate (as is the trauma that white, cisgendered, upper-middle class men may experience), can only be healed if I take responsibility for it and refuse to turn my back to those who face bigger hardships than I do.

I don’t know yet how to avoid being a hypocrite. If I’m honest, which I always am, maintaining my current quality of life (and the quality of life my children have) remains the driving force in my life. I’m not prepared to, for example, cede my property to its rightful indigenous land owners. I’m not ready to stop buying my groceries at a chain store most of the time. It’s not feasible to walk away from fossil fuels. I can’t give up on mainstream life without making massive sacrifices that will affect not only me, but my children as well!

So I have to think. And I need to keep asking questions and keep saying “yes” to opportunities to learn more and do better. Most of all, I can’t turn away from the discomfort of watching the news, and neither can you. Those of us who struggle with our mental health or who are victims of abuse, must use our traumas to empathize with others and call for action for the betterment of society; fixing the world would be the ultimate therapy. But can we do it?

xxJ

I don’t know if I can save the world, but I know I can’t turn away and ignore what’s happening.