Why having a positive mental attitude sucks

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I’m going to lay my cards on the table. I’m normally a mild-mannered person, which is just as well in my chosen profession, but there are a few things that are guaranteed to send me skyward and into a mouth-frothing rage. 

Today, I’m going to indulge myself by having a rant about the well-worn concept of staying positive aka having a positive mental attitude (PMA).

Before I start, I need to confess that until I became a counsellor, I was largely in favour of PMA theory. The heading on my Facebook page declared:

Head up

Tits forward

Heels on

March on

I’m not proud of that, but back then, I only knew what I knew.

This morning, a well-meaning friend responded to my moaning about how fearful I am that the ‘Indian variant’ will well and truly mess up my very modest plans for this summer by saying: ‘we’ve just got to stay positive’.

Damn me if two hours later I got a similar response from another friend: ‘Let’s just stay positive, Erica.’ He said. 

The problem with beginning in a continual state of positivity is that it’s exhausting, energy-sapping and a really facile way of hiding real feelings, whilst refusing to validate the person who has confided their pain to you. This is my stuff, but when someone tells me to be positive, I feel humiliated.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but I always feel that people who tell me to be positive are really implying that I’m being weak-minded and weak-willed, which feels like a slap in the face when I think I’m being open and vulnerable by expressing what I feel without fear or artifice.

The first time I remember having a serious aversion to ‘positivity’ was about 20 years ago when I was trying to lose my ‘baby fat.’ When I was pregnant, I didn’t have much of a bump, but my arse grew so large that it could block out daylight. 

For years afterwards, despite doing extreme amounts of exercise, I just couldn’t shift the weight. So I joined a gym and engaged a personal trainer. I worked my ass off for a month, going to the gym  and doing aerobic classes 5 days a week. All went well until my weigh-in at the end of the first month. I hadn’t lost a pound. My personal trainer, Mr PMA, launched into a speech. Yes, I was working hard, he said, but maybe my diet was all wrong. He looked at the scales, then announced that for a person of my height I was obese (at the time, my 5ft1 frame was carrying about 63kg). He sighed, then added: ‘you just need a positive mental attitude.’ 

What really annoyed me was that he thought that telling me to ‘be positive’ was the right thing to do. He took no consideration of my mental state, he just pronounced judgement, when what I really needed was praise for all of my hard work, encouragement to future orientate my efforts and reassurance that it might take a bit longer than I’d hoped, but my efforts would eventually pay off.

This false positivity is a trait amongst the British. It’s spoon-fed to us with our mother’s milk.

‘Just get on with it, ‘keep going’, ‘keep on buggering on’, ‘put your big girls pants on’, are probably the most overused phrases in the English Language. I see them as part of the chronic disease of British Exceptionalism, but that’s another post for another time.

What this positivity trope says about us is that we believe that being sensitive or emotional is not the done thing.

It’s no wonder that we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis with a mental health service that is woefully underfunded and ill-equipped to treat the increasing numbers of people who desperately need support.

Keeping our feelings locked away with a smile on our lips is disastrous. If someone decides to bury a particularly nasty experience in the bowels of their subconscious, the feelings it engenders have not gone away; they are repressed and simply find other ways to express themselves, usually in the form of anger, other undesirable behaviours, depression, anxiety, addiction and a host of other mental health conditions. Unvoiced and thus untreated trauma has the power to devastates lives.

A friend of mine once told me about what happened to him. 

He had an awful childhood. His parents were neglectful because they only had eyes for each other. His dad was physically abusive. When his parents weren’t making love, they were shouting, screaming and throwing china at each other.

 He was sent away to school aged seven where he was bullied relentlessly because he could not read. He wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was in his early teens. 

He kept on running away from school because he was so unhappy. As an eight year old, he would escape from school to walk for over a day to get home. When he arrived home, his father beat him, put him in the car and drove him back to school. This happened time and time again.

Eventually, his Dad had enough of the rinse and repeat cycle. He enrolled my friend in a school that was 350 miles away from home. As if that wasn’t punishment enough, his father only allowed him home in the long summer holidays. The family never visited him. 

To add insult to injury, his sister was allowed to stay at home and go to a day school. When she became a school refuser, her father visited the headmistress and told her that he would continue to pay the school fees as long as she didn’t bother him with letters and phone calls demanding his daughter’s presence in school.

My friend is the most charming, erudite man that you could ever hope to meet. He has a host of funny stories about his family and travels around the world that he delights his friends and acquaintances with. He uses his good humour, charming manners and positivity to put you at your ease and to throw an impenetrable shield around himself. 

If you are ever allowed to get to know him, you soon discover that he is deeply and chronically depressed. 

I have a few other friends who are convinced that their positivity has made them successful in life. One plays the theme tune to ‘Thunderbirds’ before he leaves the house every morning. Another chants: ‘yesterday is HISTORY, today is a VICTORY’ during his car journey to work.

A third claims that she cannot remember the past. She has literally ‘erased’ her whole marriage and her children’s childhood from her memory banks, in a bid to absolve herself from being a very nasty person to her husband and kids. She has remade herself with a 20-year gap in her memory thus avoiding taking responsibility for her questionable behaviour. She once told me that she always has a smile on her lips and a smile on her face. I couldn’t help but wonder why every time I heard her sing, the songs she chose were pure misery.

All of these people, on their own admission, are nightmares to live with. They have short fuses and control every aspect of their families lives. They have little empathy, but smoother their partners and children with a clingy love that satisfies their need to be in control. 

All these people suffered traumatic events and losses and physical and mental health issues within their families from an early age. None were encouraged to grieve or seek help from a professional to work through their trauma. They were simply told to ‘man up’ and ‘get on with it!’. Or as my friend used to say ‘pull up the drawbridge or you’re toast’.

The other trait that my friends have in common is their contempt and disdain of the counselling and psychotherapy profession. It doesn’t take a genius to work of that these helping professionals represent a threat to their faulty safety and coping mechanisms, so must be avoided like the plague.

Many people associate ‘getting on with it’ with mental toughness, whilst depression and anxiety are seen (much less so now than in the past) as a weakness. When I’m working I make sure that I explain to people exactly what I mean by vulnerability, otherwise, they conjure up pictures in their head of poor souls who cannot look after themselves and need protecting.

True vulnerability is the ability to be open and honest with your feelings which involves trusting others to understand and validate you. So it’s not impossible to understand why so many people will put on their positive face: a big brave smile in the face of adversity hides the fear of being misunderstood, judged and ridiculed, when what we really need is to be listened to, understood, validated, and treated with empathy. We need be asked how we are, how we feel. We need to know that when somebody asks as these questions, they will listen to our answers.

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I was once told never to ask anyone how they are, because they will tell you. My experience is that very few people will tell you how they really are, instead they will answer with: I’m fine’ or ‘I’m OK’, know that the people who will actually follow that up with a more open enquiry about your wellbeing are few and far between.

So, I have to confess that I find the new form how are you?: ‘you OK?’ quite unpalatable.

It seems to me that people ask this because they want to hear you say ‘yes’ so that the conversation can move swiftly on without them being bothered by having to listen to you talk about your physical or emotional state.

I always start sessions with my clients like this:

ME: ‘How have you been since our last session?’

Client: ‘OK’

ME: What do you mean by OK?

Client: ‘I mean ‘I’m fine’

ME: ‘What do you mean by fine?’

Usually, at that point, they laugh and tell me how they have been feeling and what has happened in the past week or two.

A very dear friend of mine always used to say that FINE is an acronym

Fucked-up

Insecure

Neurotic

Emotional

When I tell my clients this, usually substituting ‘fed up’ for fucked-up’, they tend to laugh and nod in agreement.

I may be wildly off course, but my understanding is that people often mistake having a positive attitude for mental toughness. I believe that being vulnerable is the highest form of emotional toughness because it means that you allow yourself to be open and honest with yourself and others. Being vulnerable means that you are willing to deal with your shit and other people’s. 

PMA is about hiding your ‘negative’ emotional states, such as lack of confidence, low self-esteem and stomach-churning fear, from yourself and others. But you can’t jolly yourself out of what you feel. You can bury your uncomfortable emotions as deep as you like but they will always be there, gnawing away at you,  taking every opportunity they can to seep out and present themselves in a very unpleasant way. It may seem hard or even nye on impossible but learning to express your uglier feelings in a supportive environment will benefit you in the future.

If I were a fairy, I’d fly over the world sprinkling three types of very special homemade fairy dust:

The first would eradicate false positivity and enable people to open their mouths and explain how they feel. 

The second would enable them to listen to problems with understanding and empathy. 

The third would disable their ability to foist solution-focussed ideas on people who just need to be listened to and hugged.

So rant over. 

Thank you for indulging me by allowing me to vent. 

But if any one of you says to me: ‘Erica, just be positive’, I swear I’ll hunt you down.

By ericapcounselling

Systemic and integrative counsellor/therapist Specialisms: Couples counselling, relationship counselling, addiction, bereavement and loss, mental health, stress management and self-care. Counsellor by day, singer by night!

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