On False Positivity
Throughout my life I have been told to smile more times than I can count. I have been told that I need more joy in my life and that I bring people down. I don’t believe in pushing my emotions off on others, so for years my response has been to let them do their thing and continue to acknowledge my emotions in whatever way I can, without involving others. After being told so many times that the only way to be a good spiritual person is by always radiating joy, I have stopped engaging with many of the people in the New Age community.
Any belief in emotions and feelings as real or true for me has a problematic underpinning. I suffer from depression and anxiety with panic attacks. I know better than most that sometimes my emotions just aren’t me. I also know that always looking on the bright side of life isn’t always the best solution to our emotional distress. When we push away these emotions, often we give them more power than they were ever supposed to have. This is just as much of a destructive behavior as letting those emotions leave me bitter.
I first started to suspect this two years ago when my psychiatrist prescribed me Ativan for my panic attacks. Ativan could stop my panic attacks very quickly and if I had something that I knew was going to trigger a panic attack, I could take it and get through the day. Sometimes that is what you have to do. Sometimes we have to push aside our emotions because the timing isn’t right to express them, and I respect that. What I found; however, is that every time the Ativan wore off, I would have the panic attack that I had been putting off. Ever the curious scientist, I started asking other people with anxiety and found that this happened to them as well. So what’s happening here?
What I suspect is happening from a chemical standpoint is that the Ativan blocks the chemicals in my brain that tell me to have a panic attack. This is super handy because I don’t want to have a panic attack during an exam, which I’ve done more times than I can count, or at work. Since my panic attacks are caused by these chemical reactions, I am grateful that I have the ability to have medical intervention with these things when necessary, but it isn’t always necessary and it isn’t a useful way of dealing with emotions that aren’t caused by chemical imbalances.
From a more spiritual standpoint, I think when certain emotions are triggered, sometimes we can just let them pass over us. If you have a mindfulness practice, you probably encounter this in your meditation practice. You have an emotion arise, you acknowledge it, observe it, and often times it will float away. If; however, you try to push it away, you will find that you become increasingly agitated. What I found in the early days of my practice is that I would sit with the emotions like happiness and joy when they arose, instead of observing them with detachment, I would embody them. The emotions like grief and anger, I would try to push away. This pushing would then breed frustration and self-doubt about my ability to ever be a spiritual person. This was as much my fault for not being able to detach as the fault of the New Age culture that values positivity about all else.
The New Age community in particular pushes an agenda of positivity as a way to spiritual fulfillment. This may be way people who work with darker entities don’t really relate to being part of the New Age community. Far too often is people who are shamed for actually feeling so-called negative emotions. Shamed for feeling grief, anger, sadness, and envy or for not expressing them in a way that makes the people around them feel comfortable. After all, spiritual gatherings are supposed to be joyful, or so we are told. We are social creatures and often time it is necessary for us to talk through these emotions, give voice to our concerns, and only then can we really process our negative emotions. We need the support of our friends, families, and spiritual communities.
It is possible to approach our emotions without labeling them as positive or negative. It is a challenging practice to sit with an emotion that makes you feel bad and not label it as inherently negative, but it is an important practice in awareness and healing from living in a culture that tries to force us into boxes of good and bad. Emotions don’t have to be either. They are a natural response to stimuli in our world. If someone breaks your heart, then pushing away the grief, usually just postpones the inevitable. It’s like taking your own intellectual version of Ativan, you suppress the emotions, but when you do this, they may hit you when you least want them to. Only you really know how you respond to suppressing emotions, but know that you are not a less spiritual person just because you are human and feel a very human range of emotions.
When you are advising someone to be more positive or act with more joy, as if they are failing on some sort of spiritual level to really see what life is about, you may be gaslighting them. Often times if someone is expressing to you an emotion outside of joy, happiness, and positivity, it’s because they want you to care, help them, or just listen. They are trying to work through something and your attempts at silencing them can be harmful to their healing process.
This is not to say that you should allow someone to vent to you if it is harmful to your wellbeing. If that person’s negativity is something you cannot deal with, or you feel their negativity is something chronic or that you don’t want to deal with, then you always have the right to suggest that they talk to a professional or to ask them to find someone else to speak to. You have to be kind to yourself and your mental wellbeing, but be kind in your methods. As the Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Image Credit: Lorie Shaull
DISCLAIMER I am not a doctor and I’m in no way suggesting that you should stop taking your medication or put yourself into situations where you feel unsafe.