If I were to say that our culture has a positivity problem, would you feel safe to assume that said problem is that we're lacking? In many ways, that's definitely true—our current social and political landscape isn't exactly littered with unicorns and rainbows. But I'd also argue that the other end of the spectrum—the world of inspirational Instagram quotes, sunny affirmations, and endless body positivity—isn't the antidote we need right now. In fact, it might be counterproductive to facing a world in which negativity is an inevitability.
Yet we seem to forget that there's a third option: the acknowledgment that the amorphous mess of good and bad is the very essence of humanity. This is realism, and embracing it in my own life set me free in ways I never anticipated.
In contrast, much of my early 20s were spent in a vicious loop of black-and-white thinking. I oscillated between feeling like I was never good enough and wondering why I just couldn't be happy with all the things I already had going for me. There was no in-between. Or rather, the in-between felt messy, and my mind felt messy enough already.
This was further complicated by my history with eating issues, especially since my recovery coincided with the rise of the body-positivity movement—and Instagram. Some days I'd scroll through my feed and feel triggered by waifish industry types in their street style best. On others, I'd see posts calling for everyone to celebrate their thighs, to unconditionally adore their bodies. It seemed like an admirable thing in theory, to aspire to this kind of self-adulation. But on the inevitable days when I struggled to feel good about myself, the additional pressure to feel fantastic sent me deeper into my spiral. Positive thinking wasn't a tool to pull myself out, but a taunting reminder of my personal failure—of my unhappiness.
But therein lies the problem with positivity: When life is less than sunny, which life is wont to be, it feels that much more difficult to cope. We ask ourselves: Why can't I just be happy? The real question is, why can't we just be unhappy, just for a minute, without shame or judgment? Why can't we just allow ourselves to feel? To be?
"Optimism in the extreme really is just the other side of the coin to pessimism," says Heather Silvestri, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist. "If 'staying positive' means never feeling negative, then it's forcing a singular requirement on the rich and variegated experiences of our psyches and our emotional selves." In other words, positivity is highly uncomplicated, when psychologically, we are exactly the opposite. It's a total mismatch—and insisting that we stay optimistic all the time essentially dumbs us down. At the very least, it's disingenuous.
But it's also definitely not all detrimental—to say so would be to offer pessimism as the only alternative, which is just a reassortment of the same binary thinking. If we defer to scientific research, the answer, as Silvestri says, is a little messier: Studies show that an inner dialogue comprised of positive and negative self-talk is considered psychologically healthy. Why? Because it better readies us to deal with all the ups and downs we face on a daily basis. We expect the bad with the good, so when things don't go in our favor, it doesn't feel like the end of the world—to the contrary, we're clear-headed enough to find the solution or else ride the bad feelings out. Most importantly, we know that acknowledging these emotions is a sign of power, not weakness.
As a highly sensitive person—a trait that I have grown to see as one of my greatest strengths—this is the realization that freed me from myself. By aspiring to optimism and optimism only, I saw all other emotions as obstacles—so when they surfaced, I felt like I was drowning. "[This notion of 'staying positive'] potentially interferes with compassion, whether for self or other," says Silvestri. In this case, I was failing miserably to empathize with myself. And by resenting the negativity, it was that much more difficult to address it in a meaningful and productive way.
"It's problematic because it puts us in a position where we cannot express hurts and pains in a helpful way, because we feel ashamed we felt them," reiterates fitness expert and THE/THIRTY contributor Claire Fountain. "We need to pay attention to our feelings, as they will tell us more about ourselves and the world around us." And that begins with knowing that the most realistic state of being is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but somewhere in between—and knowing that this state will always be in flux.
For me, there was no aha moment, no sudden vision of this pathway out. Instead, through introspection and different forms of self-care, I simply began to allow myself to feel uncomfortable, until sitting with my emotions—the "mess" of myself—didn't feel uncomfortable, and I knew I wasn't actually a mess, but human. Without this need to be and feel a certain way, I began to know myself on a more authentic level. And interestingly, I became more positive by default, because suddenly the "bad" didn't feel so earth-shattering.
This is all to say that because this is highly personal and complicated work, there's no "right" way to find a more comfortable way of being. Journaling is always a great place to start because simply conceding and defining your feelings can help alleviate any of the shame or murkiness you might harbor around them. But above all else, remember that there is so much beauty in the multidimensionality of our emotions, and insisting on "staying positive" only serves as a roadblock to tapping into this individuality.
"There is a gratitude that comes with being able to experience pain and pleasure because it means we are alive," says Fountain. "And to be alive means to feel it all: the good, the bad, the ugly."