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Beware of toxic positivism

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.

William Arthur Ward*


I could safely bet that many, if not most, of those who read this post, will strongly disagree with several of the opinions I will share.

It's been a long time since this issue has been grinding in my ears and causing me a discomfort that is difficult to ignore. Although there was a time when I did believe in optimism and pessimism, eventually, with the passing of the years and life’s punches, I came to realize that these are nothing more than two idiotic, harmful, liars and lazy siblings, whom I have learned to detest more and more every day.

I warned you at the beginning. You probably won't like this post.

Exaggerations harm, and generalizations hurt. Throwing around "good vibes" and a "positive" attitude (and I love having one) is not a guarantee of success and causes the same emotional damage as chronic negativism, and the denial that good things can happen.

From a young age we are taught to be “optimistic" and to always see "the bright side of things." The question is, what happens when we ignore the "dark" side? What happens if we overlook the lessons to be learned by accepting and analyzing the negative side of a situation?

Hopefully, in the following paragraphs, we will find some answers.

Positivism vs naivety

Positivity becomes toxic the moment we focus solely on the positive of a situation. No matter how bad it is, we decide to ignore everything that hurts or bothers us, assuming a childish, irresponsible, and nefarious attitude that can only lead us down a path of great disappointment and tough reality wake-up calls.

You can’t always see "the bright side of things", think that "it could have been worse", or get a false sense of relief by saying someone has it worse than you.

No, you can't do that all the time. It’s not right.

Struggles, failures, disappointments, and pain bring learning, wake-up calls, and unique opportunities for new beginnings. It is not only okay, but necessary to see the negative and accept it as such. Doing so is a mature and courageous attitude. Enough of wallowing in the naive belief that ignoring something will make it go away. That is not being positive!

Dealing with negativity in life is always tough, but for those of us who also face emotional and mental challenges, the slope becomes even steeper. And if, on top of that, we are forced to carry the absurd and harmful burden, imposed by our society, of having to walk through life with a full smile, spreading “good vibes” even though we are dying inside, then what’s difficult becomes impossible, and what’s negative becomes tragic.

Having said that, I'm not talking about spreading bitterness, drag a sour attitude, or focus exclusively on the bad things in life. Like everything else, and as I have mentioned here on several occasions, balance is essential.

Don’t devalue your pain.

Many times, I have minimized my pain, downplaying it, and condemning myself for feeling hurt, worried, insufficient. Truth be told, even when sometimes we deserve punches from life, many others just hit us, they just happen, because that comes with living, and because there are things, many things, that simply escape our control.

Part of avoiding falling prey to toxic positivity lies on our own respect, or lack thereof, toward the pain we are experiencing at any given moment. As I mentioned in the post "Hurt without guilt", it is essential for our mental and emotional health to allow ourselves to suffer, to process pain, and to heal. Very frequently, we are merciless judges, denying ourselves the tiniest bit of mercy, accepting our troubles and vicissitudes as deserved punishments, even on occasions when we cannot find a cause.

The damage this attitude can cause is profound so, please, respect your pain.

Be sincere, not hurtful.

An attitude we can easily adopt is lowering our arms, throw ourselves into abandonment, and act as if no responsibility fell on us. On more than one occasion, I felt a victim of life, of my peers, of the system… Eventually, I had to acknowledge and accept that acting as a victim was my decision, and that no one but me was responsible for wearing that label on my front. This does not mean that, sometimes, we can be victims. A tragedy, a betrayal or an accident are just some of the tricks life uses to try to break us, and it is normal to feel targeted by misfortune. Normal, and justified. However, after some brief mourning, it is time to react. Victims or not, we must not accept that nickname.

Victimization, which is, in a way, a form of self-pity to take refuge in, tends to isolate us from the rest of the world, hurting, mainly, those closest to us, who tend to be the ones who invest the most energy in helping us, and who are also the recipients of our most vile reactions and attitudes. Behaving as if we were the sole owners of transparency, we hide behind a wrong concept of sincerity, to say whatever comes to our minds, and do whatever we want, without filters or qualms. Why is it that human beings so often confuse being sincere with being aggressive, and being genuine with being hurtful?

Look around you carefully and scrutinize your attitudes. Is there someone you should apologize to?

If you are just a little like me, the answer is probably yes.

Positive thinking? No. Positive attitude and actions!

Repeating to myself, a thousand times, that "everything was going to be fine", never had positive effects on me. At least none that lasted. “Thoughts and prayers” are of little use, for multiple reason. First, it is a process in which we try to convince ourselves that something is real, without having justified reasons or evidence to support that belief. Besides that, that thing we call "thinking" is not such. Rather, it is just the mere repetition of a mantra, devoid of action, or effect, or real planning. A positive attitude, on the contrary, is not based on wanting to disguise reality, but on facing it as it is, determined to not lower our arms and fight until the end, without looking for excuses. It is, therefore, action, movement, planning. Win or lose, we advance in the battle. A defeat in it will not be the end of the war, but one more step, painful but educational and empowering, that will make us better for the next fight.

To summarize: do not bend to the pressure of being always positive, and at all times. Find the balance and keep it to get closer to your best, genuinely positive version. Don't stop looking for the good side of things, but don't ignore the bad either. Feed on the positive and examine the negative to extract as much knowledge as you can.

Do not downplay your achievements, but neither your pain.

* William Arthur Ward (Dec. 17, 1921 – March 30, 1994), was an American motivational writer.

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