Positivity is a good thing. There is no shortage of studies that prove that having a positive outlook on life not only increases your quality of life, but also your longevity and can reduce your health risks. In fact, there are a number of studies that prove when people are diagnosed with an illness, having a positive outlook greatly increases their chances of recovery and healing. It is at the core of an evidence-based intervention for anxiety and depression and a form of therapy that is used by most therapists, including myself, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is based around transforming negative thoughts to positive thoughts and has time and time again proven itself to be one of the most successful therapeutic interventions. So with all this endless data on how positivity is a good thing, what can possibly be the issue? Well, like most things, too much of anything isn’t always great.
While it is perceived that positivity is the antidote to all life’s problems, what happens when it blocks you from knowing there is a problem or from being able to acknowledge your feelings? We have been taught that feelings associated with the negative: anger, sadness, frustration – the really uncomfortable ones- should be shut down and not given any attention. What we don’t like to talk about is how that may be causing more harm than good. Feelings are stronger than we think they are and will manifest themselves in some way whether you want them to or not. Sometimes in ways that become self-destructive. The feelings themselves are not the problem, but it’s how we express them.
Psychologist Dr. Salters-Pedneault suggests “If you frequently try to push away thoughts and feelings, you may be making more trouble for yourself. In fact, it’s possible that this is setting up a vicious cycle: You have a painful emotion. You try to push it away. This leads to more painful emotions, which you try to push away and so on.” In 1987 a famous study called “The White Bears” concluded that the more people tried to push a thought out of their mind, the more frequently people thoughts of them. A 2011 follow up article seeking antidotes to this paradoxical behavior writes: “Many of these strategies entail thinking about and accepting unwanted thoughts rather than suppressing them–and so, setting free the bears.”
The truth is, sometimes we need to be sad and sometimes we need to be angry. We need to sit with our uncomfortable feelings and listen to what they are trying to tell us; to provide space for our bodies and thoughts to tell us what is wrong and what we need. If the automatic reaction to uncomfortable feelings is to turn them into more comfortable ones, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to get to know that part of ourselves. To make lemonade out of lemons, we need water and sugar. Otherwise, we are just drinking lemon juice, convincing ourselves it’s lemonade.
I once worked with a woman, we’ll call her “A,” who by many measures would be defined as successful; she was considered ‘happiness goals.’ “A” was often told what an inspiration she was and how great she always looked. What brought her to therapy was this unsettling feeling she couldn’t name, but seemed to be lurking in the shadows. When she would talk to her family and friends about it, they would respond with calls to just be positive and assured those feelings would go away. “A” convinced herself that if she walked on the sunny side long enough the feelings would disappear. She noticed herself become angrier and sadder, the opposite effect of what the positivity pill was supposed to do. Together we sat in the uncomfortable, this place that was not sunny or happy or positive. We faced her fears, self-doubt, provided space for anger and sadness. “A” realized it was not the fear or sadness itself that was the problem, but it was all in how she dealt with them. To deal with them, she had to acknowledge their presence. The more she was able to identify her feelings and provide the care needed, her negative thoughts and feelings became less powerful; she was able to find her sugar and water. She stopped drinking lemon juice and found the recipe for lemonade.
Emotions and feelings are not the enemy. Our desire to only live in the comfortable and denial of uncomfortable feelings as real, honoring the truth they hold is.
Stacey Younge, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owner of Sixth Street Wellness. Her private practice focuses on utilizing both traditional therapy and telebehavioral health specializing in depression, anxiety and trauma. She is also the Senior Youth Clinician at a community mental health center in Harlem, New York specializing in adolescents and justice-involved youth. Stacey is a California native, runner and mental health advocate who is here to help you.