Relentless Positivity

I recently stumbled across a TED talk by Susan David, titled The Gift & Power of Emotional Courage. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend having a little peak. I’ve watched it three times now – and devoured the transcript.

Perhaps to some it seems a well articulated and vaguely interesting talk about  something obvious. But for me, it rings so many bells there’s a clang echoing in my ear long after the video ends.

I remember 24 years ago holding my first precious newborn. And he was precious. And delightful and beautiful and easy. So easy, people frequently commented what a “good” baby he was. He slept through the night the day he was born. Now while that certainly made my first foray into parenting far more rested than many in my mother’s group, it didn’t mean he was inherently “good”. By calling a baby good, there is an inference others are “bad”. Which of course they are not. Maybe sleepless, colicky or exhausting – but not bad. Babies aren’t good or bad. They’re adorable.

And according to Susan David, we need to consider emotions in the same light. Not adorable – but as neither good nor bad. They are just emotions – all valid and no qualitative labels required. Apparently most of us are expert at either brooding or bottling our emotions, and we live in a world full of forced positivity where, “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness”.

For most of my life I was a bottler. I confess I was morally correct and falsely positive at all times as I believed that’s what everyone preferred. I didn’t really have emotions – I unwittingly numbed them in one way or another. One day it all became too much. All those emotions I’d pushed aside and ignored, coincided with overwhelming external pressures and grief, and before I knew it I was drowning in emotions. Brooding like a barn full of clucky hens. My pendulum had swung in a very large arc – from feeling nothing to feeling it all. That was a few years ago – I cracked wide open, found myself diagnosed with a variety of mental health issues, and have been working on pulling myself back together ever since.

After listening to Susan’s talk however, by the time I got to the third airing I realised I’ve become a brooder. I wallow in emotions, over analysing, over thinking, catastrophising and amplifying. I’ve gone from false positivity to a fear of positivity. A fear being positive will come crashing down around my ears any minute.

Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.

What an amazing quote. I am so often consumed with fear. Not average fears – I don’t fear heights or accidents or dying. I fear loss. Loss of everything near and dear to me, and I brood on the possibility of these losses every single day. For hours on end. I dream about it, and not in a good way. I fear happiness, positivity, and looking to the future. All those things can be taken away in an instant and somehow it’s easier to brood on the possibility of disaster rather than dreams.

Logically, I recognise my pendulum swing is neither helpful nor enjoyable – for anyone. And in fairness to myself, I have worked with a most excellent therapist for several years and am moving towards a balanced acceptance of emotional states.

Listening to Susan’s talk gave me courage and hope. I am tired of the pursuit of happiness. The expectation of relentless positivity. Why should I pretend? It isn’t helpful it isn’t honest, and I despise fake cheerfulness in others. I am also tired of fearing happiness. To know peace and contentment I need to accept the here and now. Sometimes life is beautiful and amazing – even on dark days. Sometimes it’s beautiful and amazing and I feel peaceful and contented. I have a life much the same as most people’s – filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, good and bad. I am also a highly sensitive person (yes – it’s a thing, and my score is extremely high), so it is inevitable I feel emotions intensely. All of them. But until recently, I was of the opinion that – unlike adorable babies – emotions were good or bad. Now I realise they are all valuable and essential. They all have a purpose. And avoiding the uncomfortable just amplifies it.

Knowing is just half the battle – a lifetime of habits is not easily remedied. But half the battle is a jolly good start. I refuse to ever again subject myself to the torment of relentless positivity. I will put on my big girl socks and make a concerted effort to be courageous enough to walk with my fears.

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