The Sunday magazine21:03Nora McInerny on rejecting ‘toxic positivity’ and her new book Bad Vibes Only
Despite the trendy interior proclaiming “good vibes only” — a mantra demanding to leave tough emotions at the door — Nora McInerny says the life vibes are, in reality, a mixed bag at best.
“I’m someone who knows that life isn’t just a high point for most people,” the author, podcaster, and widowed remarried, shared. The Sunday magazine Piya Chattopadhyay.
In her new book of essays Only bad vibesMcInerny challenges an overly optimistic culture – one that constantly strives for self-improvement and ignores the messy, authentic emotions of human existence.
For example: how walking into a room with aggressively cheerful furniture can make her feel unwelcome.
“I understand what people mean when they buy something like this or put something on display. I don’t think they mean, ‘I’m not interested in the pain or suffering my loved ones are going through,'” he said. McInerny.
“But it does have the effect on a person who isn’t feeling good vibes or dealing with the realities of life… of making you feel like you better put that away for another time.”
Rather than banishing negative feelings, McInerny wants people to practice what she calls “emotional honesty.”
She practices that herself, having written and spoken extensively in 2014 about the grief of dealing with the death of her husband and her father.
Bad, awkward, and awkward vibes, she argues, can help us engage in more interesting relationships, conversations, and life experiences.
“Have you ever read a good book where it’s just a fun story, where everyone gets along and everything is fine, and everyone gets exactly what they want, when they want it?” she said.
“Good vibes only – it’s honestly boring. It’s boring.”
The dark side of pointing to the bright side
While not clinical in nature, “toxic positivity” is the term coined to describe this particular brand of chasing eternal happiness.
Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has defined it as a form of denial. “When you tell someone to ‘be positive,’ you’re really telling them, ‘My comfort is more important than your reality,'” she writes.
It can manifest in well-meaning suggestions that “it’s not all bad!” or to “Look on the bright side!” when a friend or colleague shares an uncomfortable story or experience. It’s what precedes the reminder that no amount of positive thinking would have changed McInerny’s late husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
[Toxic positivity] can contribute to more embarrassment and even significantly worsen their mood.– Dr Saunia Ahmad
We’re all guilty of it, says Brett Ford, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Toronto. When a friend (or loved one or employee) comes to us with a problem, we want to lessen the impact of uncomfortable emotions.
But the reality is that both positive and negative emotions contribute to healthy mental well-being. And all too often we see happiness as desirable, while bad feelings are seen as a problem to be solved, says Ford.
While it may seem self-evident to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, research, including Ford’s, suggests that the opposite may be true. That’s because constant judgment of one’s emotions can form so-called meta-emotions — feelings about feelings — that reinforce and exacerbate our discomfort.
“The more you judge and evaluate your emotions — think they’re good or bad, want to get rid of them — the worse your psychological health is,” says Ford.
Rejecting difficult emotions with a statement like “good vibes only” can send a damaging message to people who are depressed or anxious, said Dr. Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic.
“It communicates that they are doing something wrong… and it can contribute to more embarrassment and even significantly worsen their mood,” she said.
Emotions are ultimately informative. Fear tells us to run from danger. Anger tells us to stand up for ourselves. Hurt says there’s something missing in our lives.
“To get rid of that feeling, you have to get through it first,” said Ahmad. “So to get out of the pain, you have to go through the pain first.”
That may mean avoiding the urge to push negative emotions away and instead accepting them as passing. This is actually possible help them pass faster.
Emotional honesty for loved ones and yourself
This is not to say that there is no room for positivity. “We are definitely talking to people about a balance,” Ahmad said.
The psychologist can encourage someone who is angry to write down things they are grateful for, putting both the painful and the joyful into perspective.
Likewise, social environments that provide a temporary escape from uncomfortable emotions can be helpful in processing feelings.
In her book, McInerny describes herself as the saddest, happiest person—or, conversely, the happiest, saddest person—she knows.
“If I could draw a Venn diagram of myself, those two things overlap, and it would be like I’m the life of the party and I’m a party animal,” she said with a laugh.
And while she calls on all of us to be more truthful with our emotions, she acknowledges that sometimes honesty is reserved for trusted listeners – and especially yourself.
“The cashier at Target doesn’t deserve the truth when he asks how I’m doing. No way,” she said.
“He’s not paid to hear that.”