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The Tyranny of Positivity

The back of a person's shirt, which says, "Good Vibes Only."

Dear Everyone,

It's getting to be that time of year when I notice even more pressure than usual to be grateful, cheerful, and get/stay busy celebrating. In an effort to apply some curiosity and perhaps disrupt this script for anyone who would appreciate some disruption, I offer the following thoughts. As per usual, the invitation is to try it on and take what feels supportive and leave what doesn't.


The very first teaching I received in the mindfulness studies program was the gift of Rumi's The Guest House. It goes like this:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

It was the first lesson because this teaching is foundational: Emotions are messengers, or if you prefer, emotions are data. And like any other phenomenon, emotions arise, have a lifespan, and then fade away.

Emotions are messengers... and like any other phenomenon, emotions arise, have a lifespan, and then fade away.

You know what gratitude is? It's an emotion, which arises, is, and then fades away.

In her latest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Dr. Brené Brown and her team identified, defined, and organized 87 emotions or experiences. The definition of gratitude is in Chapter 11, Places We Go When Life is Good, and it is listed along with joy, happiness, calm, contentment, foreboding joy, relief, and tranquility.

On page 214 she writes:

There are about as many definitions of gratitude as there are researchers, poets, and writers who examine the emotion in their work. Many of the existing research definitions don't resonate with the way people described their experiences of gratitude to me in interviews or in writing. Here's what emerged from our work: Gratitude is an emotion that reflects our deep appreciation for what we value, what brings meaning to our lives, and makes us feel connected to ourselves and others.

She goes on to talk about gratitude as a practice, which might be familiar to readers of this blog because I write often about practices and how getting the reps in supports a way of being in the world.

Notice, though, what friends gratitude is sitting with in Atlas: joy, happiness, calm, contentment, foreboding joy, relief, and tranquility. These are all emotions that commonly arise when I'm in a good place. What about when I'm not, like maybe right now, with all of the dis-ease that abounds in the world, let alone the hard stuff that arises in each of our lives?

sign of tie dye background that says "Just Be Kind" in white letters

Kindness or Comfort

This blog post arose after talking with a friend last week who mentioned another friend of hers wasn't looking forward to the holidays this year because she'd had an unexpected loss. She's already feeling the pressure to "chin up" and "be grateful." That's when I blurted out, "Ugh! The tyranny of positivity!" I've now googled that phrase and see that Susan David wrote about it in January, so I'm pretty sure that's where I first heard it.

The idea is this-- in Western culture, there is conditioning to be grateful, look on the bright side, stay positive, find the silver lining, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about any of these practices. The problem, as I see it, is when the more unpleasant feelings come to visit, and I'm expected to slam the door in their face or to send them on their way quickly. If I'm in a place that allows good vibes only, then I'm not in a place that recognizes me as a living, breathing human being who is experiencing being human-- the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral (neither pleasant or unpleasant).

In the best scenario, the tyranny of positivity adds to the suffering of the person who's experiencing unpleasant emotions because they get the message that the comfort of those around them is prioritized above allowing and acknowledging unpleasant emotions.

In other scenarios, the tyranny of positivity can stifle compassionate candor about experiences of those in historically-excluded groups, which may increase their suffering exponentially. "Oh, you felt 'othered' because of your age/color/sex/disability/national origin/race/religion/sexual orientation/marital/veteran status? Don't worry about that-- it's GOOD VIBES ONLY here!" Is it any wonder that the -isms continue to dominate?

To see and be seen by each other, we've got to collectively get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable when unpleasant feelings arise. Otherwise, the tyranny of positivity takes the wheel, which does not lead to a place that is kind.

Kindness can be messy because being a human is sometimes messy. Here's what I do know, though: true connection--where I allow you to really see me, and you allow me to really see you-- arises in a place that is supported by kindness, one that allows me to share all of the guests that are currently inhabiting the guest house known as Jill. Some of those guests are easy to host, and some of those guests are not as easy to host. Some of those guests are pleasant, and some of those guests are unpleasant... and all of them will eventually leave.

My Ask of You

As we move into the end-of-year holidays here in America, can each of us in our Thought Kitchen sangha stay curious about some stuff, with the intention of disrupting the cultural tyranny of positivity we live in? Here are a few questions I'm going to keep asking myself:

  1. Am I showing up with an intention of kindness and resourced enough to respond in a kind way when the unpleasant arises?

  2. What kind of expectations do I have when I ask people about their holiday plans? Is it an opening to talk about mine? Am I genuinely curious? Am I running the small talk script?

  3. In events I host, how can I reframe the idea of gratitude? Can I acknowledge that it's an emotion (which means it's fleeting and may not be present at that moment)? Can I talk about the idea of paradox (two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time), which might allow more room for gratitude to arise, in the midst of the hard stuff? Can I build a container where my guests truly feel that "No is a complete answer" if the subject of gratitude comes up and one (or more) want to pass?

  4. In events that I attend, what might it look like for me to be a compassionate disruptor if I note the tyranny of positivity arise?

  5. What's my plan for making sure I get my mindfulness practices reps in-- both formal and informal-- so I stay as resourced as possible during the hectic holiday season?

  6. What gatherings/responsibilities am I looking forward to during the holidays? What gatherings/responsibilities am I not looking forward to during the holidays? How do the answers to these questions affect my ability to show up with an intention of kindness?

My continuing hope and intention for the Thought Kitchen Sangha is to create a community that supports each of us doing our own work to get curious about what's serving and what's not so that we can collectively create a culture that supports all of us in showing up and being known. Please join me.

With mettā,


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