Mental health

You Don’t Need to Be Positive

You don't need to be positive - there's room for other emotions too - 2 smiling dolls sitting on a bench

Toxic positivity is essentially the idea that happy and positive is the only right way to be, and therefore, people need to cheer up, look on the bright side, think positive, choose happiness, allow good vibes only, etc., etc.

It also shows up in the “it could be worse” guilt trip mentality.  You’re not in ICU on a ventilator right now, so whatever your problem is, it could be worse.

I call bullshit.

There is no officially designated worst possible human problem.  So really, it could always be worse.  By the same token, it could always be better.  So what?  It’s not a competition where only the shittiest problem gets to wear the shit crown, and everyone else has to be happy until the end of time.  The fact that someone else has it worse does not make your own problem any less shitty, nor does it make you less entitled to feel shitty about your shitty problem.

Trying to suppress emotions because we don’t think we’re entitled to feel them really doesn’t work very well.  Instead, what if you were to just allow those feelings to be there?  Make room for them, allow them to do their unhappy dance, and then let them fade on into the background.  If you start getting the guest bedroom set up so the negative feelings can have a more permanent home, that’s probably not so good.  But allowing yourself to feel the feels in the moment is a good thing.

Negative feels can also co-exist with positive feels.  You can be grateful for what you do have, and that you don’t have the worst problem in the world, but gratitude doesn’t preclude having negative feelings at the same time.  Some people say it does, but I take time every day to be mindfully grateful and it’s not some magic bullet that makes all of the bad stuff go away.  And that’s fine.  We’re complex creatures, and we can have positive and negative going on at the same time.

And while apparently we’re supposed to choose happiness, why should that be the only desirable emotion?  As human beings we’ve got a wide emotional repertoire, so why should only one emotion be acceptable?  If one of my guinea pigs died and my response was to feel happy, that would be a problem.  We have so many emotional options because we’re faced with a lot of different situations.  Not feeling happy doesn’t make you somehow less than.

So if you’re one of what seems to be many people feeling a bit guilty about having problems and negative feels during this global pandemic, it’s okay that you’ve got stuff going on that prevents you from jumping over the moon with endless gratitude that you’re not on a ventilator.  Your problems, and your feels, are still valid.

On the other side of the coin, what if you are feeling good right now even while the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket?  That is just as valid.  You don’t have to feel down just because other people are struggling, or feel guilty for feeling positive.

What I’m really trying to say is you do you.  However you feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think โ€“ it’s all okay.  Let go of the should monster, and allow yourself to be however you happen to be right now.

You can find more posts about negativity and toxic positivity on the blog index.

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle by Ashley L. Peterson

My new book, Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic, everything up to and including the kitchen sink look at how to put together the pieces of your unique depression puzzle. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the MH@H Store.

103 thoughts on “You Don’t Need to Be Positive”

  1. You know what? This is SO true!!! I hate it when only positivity is considered and even constructive criticism is badmouthed! Anyways, great post as usal๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿป and Iโ€™m looking forward to reading your book๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’ž

  2. That is a beautiful blog post, and I totally appreciate it!!

    I’ve always had a bad case of “it could be worse,” but somehow it works for me. If something awful happens, I’m grateful that it wasn’t my worst fear (getting burnt up and waking up on the burn unit all crispy, if we’re getting graphic–to me, that’s THE WORST fate to befall someone. I’d say that being on a ventilator with Covid pales by comparison). But that’s how I keep it in perspective. Whatever goes wrong, I’m not all crispy, so life will be fine. (Darn the Oprah with her parade of tragic burn victims! I hate that woman. HATE!)

    But I see what you’re saying about how our day-to-day problems seem less serious than those of someone struggling for breath due to the coronavirus. I think at the heart of it, people need to release any guilt for being unhappy over “lesser” things. I think it all comes down to guilt somehow. “I shouldn’t be dwelling over this when other people are suffering more…”

    I’ve encountered toxic positivity, and it seems like a failing. There’s definitely a difference between looking on the bright side and seeing the good (I’m a total and shameless Pollyanna) and “forcing” yourself to be jovial in the face of something truly sad (like your example of your pet dying). I’ve found that the best way to be all Pollyannaish is to allow all the negative emotions too, and to understand that they just make you human. From there it becomes easier to see the good in all things. Great blog post!!

  3. Yes, yes and yes again. I’ve been saying this for years, all the happy, happy people piss me off. and yes, I write about it – “choose to be happy” , yeah, right! And if we could we would but is that easy or even a good thing? Nope. Preach it!

  4. I struggle with the i feel like a shit storm yet i better be grateful because it could be worse. I needed this today but have to think on it to… how do i find the happy medium or is that even the point.

  5. Somehow I have a public face and a private face. That public face feels the need to project a positive image and hope. It certainly doesn’t mean however that the private face is not feeling anxiety and fearfulness and worry for family and friends and self. Both sets of feelings go on simultaneously for me.

  6. Thank you for this post, it is exactly what I needed right now! Also, I’ve never understood the idea that only people in the shittiest of situation get to wear the shit crown. If that were true, only the ONE most unfortunate person in the world would ever be justified in having negative emotions!

  7. If ever I get a tattoo, this is going on flesh with permanent ink:

    โ€œItโ€™s not a competition where only the shittiest problem gets to wear the shit crown, and everyone else has to be happy until the end of time.ย  The fact that someone else has it worse does not make your own problem any less shitty, nor does it make you less entitled to feel shitty about your shitty problem.โ€

    There will be a dragon, daggers and koi fish. Thank you, Ashley ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ™

  8. Such a good post! Maybe I say … a very positive one? ๐Ÿ˜
    Things are as they present themselves in the moment and being happy all the time is just exhausting. I’ve lived a long time on ‘others have it worse than you’ and it didn’t help me. If anything, it helps you to focus on more negative things.
    Reality is complex and humans too. We have all those emotions, sometimes one situation evokes different responses in the same moment.
    To control everything by sweeping it under the rug of ‘positivity’ isn’t going to take all the dust away. Imagine a child being brought up that way, that he/she is just plain wonderful and can do no wrong (and sweep sweep everything else under the rug), what difficulties he or she may encounter later on. I think an adult need to recognize the whole range of emotions and deal with them in an ‘good enough’ way.

  9. The only part that I wonder about, is when someone is feeling low… trying to be there “with them” through their struggle… this could be a close friend or family member… but, “with them” in the moment type of thing. How do you think that fits into this?

    1. I guess Iโ€™d say that someone trying to be supportive probably isnโ€™t going to truly understand, but they can still validate that however the person is feeling is ok.

  10. Being overly optimistic doesnโ€™t help me, and being overly pessimistic doesnโ€™t help me either. I need to feel my feelings and be able to validate them without judgement. I find that meditation helps us do exactly that – to be able to feel that feeling without distorting the feeling.

    I agree with you… I dislike the โ€œit could be worse.โ€ Using that way of thinking, you could figure out a โ€œit could be worseโ€ scenario for just about anything. The brain will always find a reason if we let it.

  11. I think we have to have a healthy dose of negativity, we need this emotion to make us more aware of danger and injustices in the world. If we were all just happy all the time – oooh, yuk!
    All that “have a nice” or “enjoy your day” crap when I don’t feel so good ๐Ÿ™ urgh!

  12. “Make room for them, allow them to do their unhappy dance, and then let them fade on into the background…” YES. I think this is a fundamental part of being human that a lot of people miss by skipping over grief in a hurried world, and burying anger in a guilt-trippy one! Grieving, sadness, anger, depression, etc… they’re never easy, but it will only be harder if you try to skip them over.

  13. I find it very hard to engage with those positivity thinking type of people because they just don’t get it. It’s like they can use positive thinking to get away with anything (how can positivity ever be wrong?) and I cannot get angry or if I do get angry, I’d feel guilty because they only meant well.

  14. Great blog Ashley and very much needs saying in the current climate whereby happiness is seen as being in your own gift if you would just meditate enough, be grateful enough etc etc A lot of the most troubled people I work with the issue can stem from an inability to tolerate and allow their negative emotions (often because they’ve been invalidated in the past or were tied to overwhelming traumas that had to be cut off to psychologically survive – so connecting with their own pain and suffering is what they need support with. Others allow their negative feelings to amplify and turn everything to shit and need support in reining them in and being able to keep perspective so they donโ€™t fall down the rabbit hole. Itโ€™s all about balance really and whilst that usually means no absolute constructs (always/never) and I agree that โ€˜shouldโ€™ is never helpful! ๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’ž

  15. I so agree with you! I was intoxicated with such positivity bullshit as a kid and it has had a lot of negative impact on me, probably the more that I was already very prone to suppressing things and I still do that. These days I’m allergic to people who try to be positive for all means and to when someone tries to force or even just encourage such an attitude in me, I think positivity, while, of course, it has positive aspects, is quite overrated these days. It just drives me absolutely bonkers and makes me go ragin’ and freak out at the same time when someone tells me what I am supposed to think or feel, because this is one area of my life that other people are not ever going to have control over. When I want to be positive, I will be positive, and when I don’t want to, I just won’t.
    Sometimes I do agree that forcing yourself to be enthusiastic does work, as a temporary mechanism, when dealing with people or something, but, from my experience, it’s only in certain situations and no one else can tell us what those situations are for us.
    I consider myself a defensive pessimist, but I don’t like the general notion that pessimists are people who always complain about things and are never happy. Actually, I think my defensive pessimism helps me to appreciate and be even more grateful for what goes well in my life than I would be otherwise. And I don’t consider myself a toxically negative person or someone who is never positive. I actually think that I am very lucky that, while having depression, most of the time I’m not as anhedonic as a lot of people are, or am not at all, and can still enjoy all the things I like and have a more or less enthusiastic attitude to things that genuinely interest me, and appreciate pleasant and beautiful things in my life without having to force myself to it too much, at least the majority of the time. Gratitude definitely works better for me than positivity and just makes more sense.

    1. That’s such an important point about other people not having control. If we choose to put on a positive front for a while, that’s fine, but if others are trying to pressure us into it, that’s not good.

  16. Damn, 57 comments. I can only dream, lol.

    I think that we should just try to be honest and negativity and positivity will just handle themselves in that environment. People who are negative are usually lying to make situations sound worse and people who are too positive are lying for the opposite reason. They likely don’t even know they’re lying… I catch myself all the time both in negative and positive moments. I’ll exaggerate just how bad a situation is so that someone understands how I feel more accurately or I’ll omit facts and harsh truths when trying to make someone feel better. Does it really do anyone a service to lie to them to make them feel better though? Probably not. Maybe they would feel better if all of their friends hadn’t been lying to them about how that pair of pants looks on them all day. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. It’s definitely a topic that people seem to have a lot to say about.

      I’d say lying probably doesn’t accomplish much, but sharing negative opinions under the guise of telling the “truth” isn’t necessarily going to be helpful either.

      1. True, I kind of see opinions as lying though… in a lot of cases. Very few people actually know what they’re talking about when they share their opinion and I count pretending to as deception. That said, conversation is just conversation so I’m not super anal-retentive about sharing your wishful thinking or hypothesis about how the government should be run with close friends… but I’m sure right now with COVID we’ve all seen the ridiculous degree to which people like to pretend they know what they’re talking about. I’ve learned that “where did you hear that?” often diffuses the whole situation because they realize right away how embarrassing their answer is.

  17. I love love love this! For so many years, I wore this mask of positivity and it was fake, exhausting, and detrimental to me actually getting help. Thank you so much for writing about this!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. I love this so much! At the beginning I was getting ready to not like this post, but as I kept going I realized just how important this is. If you suppress those negative feelings without acknowledging them then they will come back even worse.

  19. You have really struck a cord with me here so thank you. Its not that i was ignoring my other emotions but right now in order to maintain my mental health i have been living on a pink cloud. I haven’t allowed any of my other emotions in my life other then happiness and positivity. I realize now l am suffocating myself and need to look at my other emotions.

  20. I can’t love this post more. If there’s something I can’t handle, it’s the “Just try being positive” or “It can always be worse” comments. They are so invalidating.
    Before reading this post, I didn’t consider that I had been hard on myself for not being more upbeat, cheerful, etc. But I think on some level I definitely do. Food for thought.

  21. Such a great post! โค๏ธ๐Ÿ‘Œ I agree. I feel a lot of emotions these days. Sometimes I’m happy and then I feel guilty for being happy because others are suffering. I also sometimes feel sad and emotional and anxious. We have the right to feel whatever we are feeling because our feelings are valid

  22. Totally love it. Specially the appreciation of the fact that it is okay to feel other emotions too.๐ŸŒธโ™ฅ๏ธ