In times of extreme crisis and mental stress, it’s common to find comfort in the written word and motivational quotes. Whether that’s by reading a book, texting a friend or turning to Pinterest, language can be used to create understanding, and to let us know that we’re not alone. Growing up as a teenager with clinical depression, I would turn to online communities like LiveJournal, where it was easy to find safe spaces for expressing my angst.
As I’ve gotten older, newer online communities have sprung up, providing those with mental health problems more alternative avenues for coping. If you want to splash around in your own sea of depression, you can do that. If you want to pick yourself up from your heap of messy bed sheets, you can do that too. And many people do, via positive affirmations and a sea of aspirational quotes they find online.
But can extreme positivity be detrimental to mental health? Is it constructive to use poetry or elegantly crafted sentences as universal wisdom, just because we like the way they sound or appear on our screens? It’s a question I found myself asking during my most recent bout of depression. No amount of positive affirmations or scrolling through the most inspirational Instagram accounts could bring a glimmer of hope to my day. In fact, I found them repulsive. So I wondered about the pros of pessimism.
My hypotheses? Motivational quotes do more harm than good.
Hypnotherapist Nick Terrone disagrees with my gloomy hypothesis:
“I don’t believe pessimism can ever be constructive because this is a way of seeing things not as they are but worse than they are,” he explains. “An example might be the recent elections in the USA. Faux positivity would be to say “Everything is happening for a reason and it’s all absolutely perfect”. The pessimistic viewpoint would be something like: “This is the beginning of the end and we should all prepare for world war III”.
“The ‘fake it till you make it’ shtick can work for you, but ONLY when what you are trying to ‘make’ isn’t so far removed from where you already are. If you’re seriously depressed and you’re trying to seem overly positive and happy to everyone who knows you, it’ll just make you feel worse because you are expending so much energy trying to cover up what you’re really feeling deep down.”
All this may be true, but how about using pessimism as a tool for exercising foresight? As Alain de Botton suggests in the below video, there’s an argument to be made for pessimism as a constructive tool. (Sorry Nick.) Pessimism, Botton says, can protect us from disappointment, expectation, and even the evils of capitalism trying to sell us happiness. Rather than colouring our world with various shades of happiness, it’s far better to reduce our expectations with a healthy dose of pessimism. Have a look at the video – it certainly made me laugh through the tears.
The case against faux positivity is something that life coach Stacy Ison also agrees with. Ison coaches her clients using the Law of Attraction (LoA), a popular belief system amongst spiritual, new age groups that often gets flak from the scientific community for espousing blind optimism. Coined by husband and wife duo Esther and Jerry Hicks, LoA reached mainstream popularity in 2006, when Rhonda Byrnes’s self-help book The Secret was published.
In a nutshell, it’s a belief that’s grounded in the theory that like attracts like. On a metaphysical level, proponents of LoA believe that all human beings are made up of energy. Cultivate positive energy and you’ll draw people, situations and things with a similar ‘frequency’ or ‘’vibrational’ energy towards you. The reverse is also true. Seethe with rage, anger and resentment and you’ll inevitably find yourself in the centre of a never-ending shit storm.
So if I truly desire a new computer, I should be able to will it so, right?
Although she advocates strongly for LoA, Ison says blindly affirming false realities is more harmful than people realise. “I believe faux positivity can be harmful because it reminds you of what you don’t have,” she says. “Trying to fake positivity when your mind and subconscious are not at that level sometimes is too big of a jump, and you just feel worse because you haven’t achieved your desires, or you feel badly about not feeling as good as you thought you should.”
Amidst all of these therapies, systems and methodologies for digging ourselves out of the dumps, we’re ignoring one pertinent question: what’s the problem with having feelings?
“Humans can experience a wide variety of emotions and we are designed to experience all of them,” says psychologist Ray Medhora. “Denying any of them seems dangerous to me. If anything, I think of this avoidance or denial of certain emotions as the cause of the very emotion we are trying to avoid. If I tell you to close your eyes and imagine a big blue elephant, then ask you not to think of the elephant anymore, the chances are you will either actively think of something else in order to block the elephant, or you will not be able to think of anything BUT the elephant. When you focus your attention on something else, you are really only forcing a new thought with the blue elephant remaining somewhere in the back of your mind.
“I believe that positive psychology can engender the idea that happiness is the only emotion we should be trying to achieve. It could also cause us to judge ourselves or judge our negative emotions.”
So what’s an alternative for people like me who find it hard to disengage from the full spectrum of feelings? Nick Terrone has a golden nugget of wisdom: “If you’re depressed, rather than trying to kid yourself into saying or thinking you’re happy, it’s better to go a little easier on yourself by saying and thinking things like ‘This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever. I know things will get better’. These statements are much easier to believe for the person saying or thinking them, and this is exactly why they are likely to be more effective than trying to kid yourself by saying ‘I’m so happy!’
It’s not that I hate Christmas and tiny puppies, or that I like to enable depressive tendencies – far from it. You’re just as likely to find me typing in positive affirmations into my alarm on my phone or downloading meditations as you are to find me talking about #sadgirltheory . But when the gap between my thoughts and reality is too far to leap, wouldn’t it be better to find a middle ground? Or to feel all of our feelings?
There’s something cathartic about finding reprieve in a forum of other people who veer toward the side of high anxiety, as long as they can laugh at themselves about it. And if we can learn to be comfortable with difficult moments – and create amusing memes in the process – that’s when they’re likely to pass.
Header image via: Carl Hayerdahl