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Forcing a “Positive Mindset” is Hurting You

Tori Reid

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We’ve all done it:

  • Forced a smile
  • Told ourselves to “push through”
  • Reminded ourselves it could be worse, so we should be more grateful
  • The list goes on.

This is cultural, and seems to be especially pronounced in certain subcultures centered around high performance, and spirituality.

We’re often pressured to remain positive, regardless of the circumstances. And when we abide by this norm, we start to rely heavily on a positive mindset to see us through tough times.

But what if - when we take a look at the bigger picture - it turns out we’re hurting ourselves more than helping?

Understanding Positivity Culture

The essential message of constant positivity and “high vibe” culture is clear: keep your chin up, no matter what comes your way.

And if you’re struggling to, it’s an indication that you are failing. You are in control of your life, your mindset, your happiness. Therefore, if you’re not happy, it’s a you thing.

This used to feel true for me, too. Now it feels like a partial truth at best. The message is incomplete and I’ll explain more about that in a bit.

Still, I get the allure from my own firsthand experience. The positivity push is a promise to escape from our negative emotions which we’ve come to equate with our challenging experiences.

It’s a ladder to climb out of our despair and rise above our problems. It tells us we can tackle anything life throws at us so long as we believe we can. It wants us to believe that we hold the power to create our own happiness, no matter what obstacles we face.

But, it’s worth stopping and asking ourselves: even if there are nuggets of truth in this, how far is too far?

Does this non-stop chase for positivity let us deal with our feelings honestly, or does it just push us to hide our negative emotions, possibly causing more emotional issues down the road?

The Downside of Positivity Culture

The issue I have with the prevailing culture of positivity is that it strongly encourages us to suppress what are often labelled as ‘negative’ emotions.

Emotional suppression and repression are categorically unhealthy. As in: they have a terrible impact on your mental and physical health in the long term.

And the reason is simple: “negative” emotions are here for a reason.

Think about it:

Preceding every instance of extreme burnout, there were months if not years of ignoring and pushing through feelings of frustration, resentment, helplessness, and exhaustion.

Burnout isn’t the only example of this. Negative emotions foreshadow most major life disruptions that are within our control.

Divorces. Nasty breakups with jobs. The breakdown of friend and family groups. War.

Many of us think the “bad” emotions are the problem. Hence blaming them and forcing them aside. But this bypassing of our challenging emotions is the actual, critical issue.

The truth about negative emotions is that they are not our adversaries. They are not the issue. They are informing us of the issues we need to repair.

Challenging and painful emotions are here for a reason. They’re an integral part of the human experience for a reason, and their entire job is to provide extremely valuable feedback about where our core needs are going painfully unmet.

The Hidden Benefit of Negative Emotions

Understanding emotions (i.e. developing emotional literacy) is the key.

This means understanding the function our feelings serve, and how to work with them to better our lives, versus be afraid and avoiding them altogether.

The first thing to understand about feelings is that they have a job. They serve a purpose.

On the surface, their jobs are simple. For example:

Happy emotions tell us when our needs are being met.

Unhappy emotions tell us when our needs are not being met, or, another way to think of them is that a need is calling up to you to be met.

When we suppress them, it’s no healthier (or different) than suppressing hunger when we need to eat.

We’re inherently neglecting our own needs when we do this. Including the needs we have to accommodate to succeed in designing a life that allows us to thrive materially, socially, and emotionally. (Yes, we have emotional needs).

When we understand what these “negative” feelings are here for, we can start to use and channel them to build those lives. And create healthier, more sustainable solutions where happiness comes along easier in the long run anyway.

A Practical Example

Meet Work Betty.

Betty is having some frustrations about her — and her teams — work hours during a major project.

Everyone on the team has been striving to take on bigger projects, and they finally landed one. It’s a huge success! They’re thrilled…initially…

But the work hours are far more demanding than anyone anticipated.

Everyone on the team is expected to be available around the clock to meet these demands, often requiring them to pull all-nighters more than once per week.

People are missing time for self care and time with their families. And the big-shot clients seem to be clueless about this. They appear to feel very comfortable contacting team members at 2am and expecting a response right away.

Betty sees that everyone around her is dealing with the same frustrations and trying to just “put a smile on their face” to get through the turmoil of it all. They’re used to being a more positive team, and everyone’s trying to stick with the culture on this.

But Betty also notices that work relationships are suffering. The office is feeling more tense and tired. Morale is low, and work performance is strained.

While nobody is willing to talk about their frustrations about the work hours themselves, for fear of coming off ungrateful or less positive about the win, bickering seems to be becoming more commonplace around the office. About small things too, like “who didn’t replace the coffee”, which used to be the kind of hiccup everyone would take with ease.

The company has been wanting to take on bigger projects and, on paper, they finally got what they asked for. On one hand it feels wrong to be upset about the work that comes with it. They just need to suck it up and be grateful, right? Get some perspective. Stay positive and push through it like they always do.

But Betty senses that the old script isn’t working on this one. If they continue to take on projects of this magnitude and don’t address how they’re impacting the team, the team will suffer, the work will suffer, and the clients will also, inevitably, suffer.

Nobody wins.

“This team used to be genuinely happy, without having to force a smile,” Betty thought. “Maybe the counterintuitive truth is that we need to actually address, understand, and repair the issues that are causing the frustration to begin with. Maybe that’s what the frustration is telling us to do.”

Betty decided to call a team meeting and address the elephant in the room.

“Look. I know we all want to be happy about this new client. We’ve been wanting to take on bigger projects and we finally landed one.

And I don’t know about you, but it’s felt wrong to me to be ungrateful about the workload.

But the truth is, I’m frustrated about it. I’m tired. I miss my family. I miss having free time, and I miss being able to get a full night’s sleep. I don’t think I’m alone in this, either.”

She noticed the team nodding in silent agreement, before continuing on…

“I don’t think this has been good for us so far. We’re overworked, it’s impacting our mental health as individuals, our physical health because none of us are getting enough sleep, and our relationships with each other and our relationships outside of work.

We should feel frustrated that all of these things are being impacted. These things are really important to us and they’re being sacrificed right now.

The question is, how do we fix it?

We want the clients and bigger projects, but the current personal costs we’re paying are too high, and unsustainable. That’s clear. So, I think we need boundaries. And we need to brainstorm a middle-ground so that we can keep taking bigger projects, without burning ourselves out in the meantime.”

The team sighed a sigh of relief when they heard Betty’s message of owning, and understanding the negative feelings everyone was feeling.

They found her message honest, refreshing, supportive, and reassuring.

They felt seen an understood in the entirety of what they were experiencing, and for the first time since the project began — suddenly the whole team was on the same page again, and feeling genuinely hopeful about figuring this out.

Note: this hope was something “pushing through” the negativity never gave them.

Anyway, together they all volunteered to pull their last all-nighter of the project. But this one felt worth it, because it would help them meet all their needs.

Fired up, they got their wheels turning about how to instill some boundaries in their process that would support their mental health and re-instill the time-freedom the team was used to having, without hurting the quality of work for the clients.

It was a beautiful night. Their synergy was back, and they remembered why they loved working together.

Somebody forgot to replace the coffee. But Betty noticed that this time, they chuckled about it before John said, “I need to stretch my legs anyway, I’ll run and grab some!” No harm no foul.

After that night, the team had a meeting together with the clients to let them know the new boundaries and processes in place, like using a centralized Slack channel instead of 2am phone calls, and the team will respond in the morning.

Betty took the lead and broke down for the clients how these boundaries would improve the quality of work and output for the project by preserving the mental health of the team. “I’m worried that if we’re not getting sleep and taking quality breaks to maintain our personal lives, we’re going to start making mistakes, and that won’t be good. We want to get this right for you.”

The clients respected the feedback and appreciated how mindful the team was in considering their needs as well with the 2am slack channel access.

The client actually admitted they didn’t realize it was that bad, and suggested the team take a week off to recoup before continuing on. The team came back and kicked ass, still finishing on deadline, even with the new boundaries in place. (It’s well-researched now that mentally healthier and happier teams are more productive within fewer hours. So this outcome is actually realistic, believe it or not).

After the project was complete, the clients were happy to participate in a case study that helped the team bring in more major projects that, now, they all felt prepared and safe to handle.

The excitement for the big projects had returned, and this meant raises for the whole team since everyone got paid commission on projects. Even better, they could now use the extra money to participate in their lives outside of work, because their time and mental wellbeing were protected.

It looks like addressing and understanding the “negative” feeling lead to the most positive outcome after all.

Where did suppressing & “pushing through” the emotions get them?

Nowhere but downhill, fast.

Emotions as the Key to Balance

All of our emotions work this way. They’re often underestimated in their importance, but they can actually serve as a crucial key to unlocking the answers to some of our most elusive questions.

Questions like how we find a sense of purpose, work-life balance, and setting accurate, achievable goals.

Our feelings function as a living, breathing barometer, providing us with real-time feedback about our most pressing needs, desires, and aspirations.

They tell us how we need to move through the world to achieve the things we want to achieve, and build the life we need to build for ourselves.

They’re not senseless. They’re actually here to help us make sense of ourselves. And live life accordingly.

Our job is to learn to understand them.

This feedback, if understood and channelled well, can guide us towards a more fulfilling, harmonious existence, just like it did for Betty and her team.

When we make the conscious decision to listen to and integrate all of our emotions — the good, the bad, and the ugly — rather than only focusing on the positive ones, we open ourselves up to a more holistic understanding of our own needs.

And we’re able to build a life that supports our ability to spend more time with our happier emotions in the end, anyway. Our “negative” emotions want this outcome for us. They’re showing up to tell us where we’re missing a spot so we can do that, if only we understood this truth.

Doing so enables us to create a more balanced, fulfilling life. Because now the environment we’re building for ourselves is designed around who we truly are, how we truly function, and what we truly need.

This is the healthier counter-approach to designing a cookie-cutter mainstream life and trying to warp and shrink ourselves to fit within the social norms. Many of which, let’s face it, aren’t working for most people these days, because so many emotions (and their coinciding needs) are being neglected to function within those frameworks.

The emotionally integrated life is one in which we are attuned, aligned, and therefore — fully fulfilled.

The Holistic Mindset: A Healthier Alternative

Instead of forcing a “positive mindset” to achieve your goals and build the life you want, try for a holistic one.

The holistic mindset gives equal weight to all of our emotions. It does not favor positivity at the expense of other equally important emotions, nor does it ignore positive emotions and experiences for negative ones.

Personally, I’ve given up thinking of them as “positive” and “negative”, which imply a judgment.

I’m much quicker to use words like “happy”, “feel good”, “unhappy”, “challenging” and “painful” to describe feelings. There’s less judgment in that.

Regardless, every feeling gets a seat at the table to be understood, considered, and tended to.

These emotions span the entire emotional spectrum, from joy to sadness and from anger to excitement. Instead of suppressing what we perceive as negative emotions, the holistic mindset encourages us to listen to, understand, and integrate all our feelings.

This holistic approach encourages us to adopt a more open and accepting attitude towards the full array of emotions we all experience. And it challenges us to build lives, workplaces, and ultimately — a world — where humanity is supported in the entirety of its needs.

We start to understand that physical safety isn’t the only kind of safety. Emotional safety is a real, genuine concept and need that we all have, and many of us are going without.

In essence, adopting a holistic mindset over a forced positive one allows us to live lives that are more authentic and fulfilling. It offers us the opportunity to embrace our full emotional spectrum, understand our true selves better, and ultimately live in a way that genuinely resonates with the whole of who we are.

Building a Life You Feel Good About

We can’t build a life we truly feel good about without understanding how we truly feel to begin with.

Meaning:

If you take the time to understand how you truly feel in relationships, you’ll be able to find and work towards the kinds of relationships you truly want. Ones where your needs are truly met.

If you take the time to understand how you truly feel in the workplace, you’ll be able to find companies, clients, and colleagues that are truly a good fit for you. Again, ones where your needs are truly met.

The list goes on. You’ll understand more about what gives you a sense of purpose in life. More about what you truly want to spend your money on, and what you’re saving for.

You’ll have a clearer vision for your life, and the better you get at working with your emotions, you’ll have more confidence in your ability to actually bring that vision to life.

And that, is a pretty “positive” feeling, if I had to label it.

Conclusion

So, the next time you feel pressured to maintain a “positive mindset”, remember that all your emotions are valid and here for a genuine reason.

They are valuable sources of information that can help you understand yourself better and build a life that truly aligns with your needs and desires.

Don’t mute them, and don’t let anyone else convince you to. Learn to listen to them. It might be challenging at first, but the rewards — a healthier, more balanced, and fulfilling life — are well worth the effort.

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Tori Reid

Connect More Deeply to Your Life | Writing about mentally healthy goal setting, productivity, self development, and purpose.