Positivity is Total Bullshit

I've been home sick the last two days (and I'd much rather be out in the sunshine, but that's not my point today) and so I've naturally been watching lots of television, namely catching up on my favorite Brit shows Call the Midwife and Doctor Who.

I just watched this one episode of Doctor Who,  and though it takes place on another planet in the future,  it felt so spot on to me for our current social trend that I couldn't help but sit up in bed and start a post!

You don't even need to be a Whovian to get this, so if you're not a fan,  please just stick around to the meat of my post.  Don't worry,  I won't spoil the episode; I'll just give a small glimpse into the first 5 minutes, because that really tells you all you need to know. Basically, there are people on a planet with emoji badges that change expression according to their mood and robots that monitor that. If they're sad, they are killed, eaten up by the optimism machines. 

And holy hell doesn't that sound familiar? The robots of affected happiness are all around us! The relentless optimism machine is everywhere we look, force feeding us inspirational messages and telling us to think positive and everything will be honky dory (sorry, my 80s childhood is showing)!

Be happy or else you'll die. It sounds extreme, but think about it. Think about the messaging we see every day. Supposedly sadness can kill you while happiness is the secret to life. 

Which sounds, honestly, bonkers. And studies are showing that is unhealthy

It's funny, because I've been really wanting to write a post about depression lately, what with everyone talking about 13 Reasons Why and Chris Cornell's suicide. I really want to tell you, without talking about those two things, about my own battles with depression and what they really and truly feels like, how it is to feel mired in the bottomless pit. And I think I still will write that post, but when this idea popped in my head, it felt too important not to jump on. 

I want to be careful not to pretend that I'm some expert here, but I have been through a lot on the emotional rollercoaster and am a survivor of abuse and assault and depression and have been through years of therapy, so please take my perspective as one of experience, though not expertise. 

Setting aside the monster that is depression, let's talk about the natural range of human emotion. It is healthy to be sad. It is healthy to be angry. It is healthy to feel pain and remorse and annoyance and even guilt. It is healthy to have reasonable reactions to a life's array of experiences. 

Imagine you're having a bad day. You woke up late, the hot water ran out in the shower before you rinsed off, the traffic was extra bad and that asshole cut you off almost causing an accident. Then, because of traffic, you're late for work and so you tell your coworker, "Fuck I'm having a bad day! ARG! Today is just not my day!" 

And she says, "If you keep thinking like that, your day won't get any better." 

Don't you want to just smack her? Because you're entitled to your frustrations! Everyone is entitled to react to their circumstances. And if you let off a little steam with complaining, you'll probably feel better and have a better day. 

Or maybe you have had a string of bad luck. Your car broke down and you can't afford the costs and then your kid gets sick so you have to miss work, but you're out of PTO, so then you're losing even more money, then the washing machine starts making a weird noise and who knows how much that will cost? So you call your friend to vent and she says, "You're so negative lately. You're really bringing me down. Can't you just be positive?"

No, bitch, I can't just be positive. Things blow right now! 

And those are just the little things. Imagine people living with much bigger, darker events in their lives. People live with trauma, with poverty, with daily threats from racism, from homo and transphobias, with any number of bigotries and bullying (even adults get bullied), etc. Do we really think platitudes and a smile are going to fix everything? 

Because burying your emotions is how you get an ulcer. 

A little about me: I was an abused child. It would take a year to tell you all of it (I'm sure I'll post later), so to sum up: my crazy mother beat me and emotionally abused me and put me on stage (both literal and metaphorical) and told me to smile. I wasn't to have negative emotions; I was to put on a show of the perfect kid with the perfect life. 

And so I did. I smiled and buried and, quite literally, repressed my emotions and my memories until I was in my mid-twenties, and both my physical and mental health suffered. I've had severe acid reflux since I was 10 years old, not to mention a crap immune system (so I got sick a lot), migraines, an autoimmune disease, panic attacks, insomnia, sleep paralysis, etc. When I first went to therapy, it wasn't to deal with my abuse (because I couldn't remember it); it was to learn to manage my stress and my health. I somehow knew my anxiety was tied to my body, but I didn't know how deeply. 

Now, let's not be unscientific. We don't know that my celiac disease was tied to my past (and it's not like celiac has been studied very well), but you can bet my reflux, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, etc., TOTALLY were. 

One of the biggest things I got to do in therapy was FEEL things! I learned to let it all out, to grieve, to get angry, to cry, to yell. And I learned to let go of the one emotion of mother approved of: guilt. Guilt, unless it's earned (say, because you wronged someone) can eat you alive. I also cut off my mother. 

Am I healthier? I'm working on it! I'm certainly the happiest I've been in my life. Imagine that: feeling my anger and sadness and grief led to happiness. It's been a long road with lots of hard work, but I will now defend my right to emotion to the ends of the earth. My story is extreme, one hopes. One hopes most children have a better upbringing than mine. But that doesn't mean those people aren't as equally entitled to their feelings. 

But, Andrea, you say, some people are always angry or always complaining or always upset? Those people drive me crazy! 

I say that that comes from the same unhealthy relationship with your emotions. My non-expert opinion says to consider why that person acts that way. Maybe they're also not allowed a healthy reaction to their lives, so they lash out in extreme ways or they become obsessed with one emotion. My non-expert opinion says that those people probably need to learn how to explore their feelings in order to work through them and either feel them in a healthy way or move on from them. 

Before I was allowed to feel, knew how to allow myself to feel, I would sometimes act in crazy ways because my body and mind didn't know what else to do. I'd stay up all night sobbing over what I thought was nothing. I'd do irrational things and lash out at friends over the tiniest infractions. That behavior wasn't okay and it wasn't good for me either. But it was because I was going crazy inside from all the things I hadn't dealt with. 

So maybe try a little compassion. Not to say you have to keep toxic people around (HELLO! I cut off my own mother). I'm just saying don't force people to behave happily all the time. 

I think it's about balance. Finding balance, which can be a lot of personal work. 

I still want to leave the issue of Depression aside, as it's too big for a couple paragraphs, but I'll just say this: a person's depression is not their fault. It's not a personal flaw or a failing and it won't be fixed by positive thinking, platitudes, or smiling. If you need resources, there are SO MANY! It's okay to not be okay. 

I also really wanted to talk about optimism and pessimism and realism, but that'll have to be a post for another day. 


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