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What is destroying your mental health? Positivity.

positivity

Your mind is a real bitch of a life companion. Full of judgment, nay saying and doubt. You would never ever choose your mind as a good friend, unless you enjoyed regular flagellation. What is making your relationship to your mind even more unpleasant? Perennial positivity.

For all its majesty at problem solving and creative thinking, the mind can also be a real Debbie Downer. Do a daily audit of how many times your mind turns towards self-deprecation or negative thinking. It’s like owning an evil Teddy Ruxpin and a tape that keeps playing: “You’re inadequate”. “No one can love you”.

In response to this, there is a deep vein running through popular culture bent on “turning that frown upside down” or the, “just switch the tape on Teddy” school of thought.

Anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and eliminate worry culture are selling the promise that the mind can be subdued into a permanent state of happiness, the darkness finally subdued.

Positive affirmations, thought replacement, avoidance and distraction among the more common place strategies that are supposed to set your mind on the path of positivity – “Serenity now!”.

None of these strategies are effective. The quest for perennial happiness will always be interrupted by the inner critic that persists. Your mind is not hard wired for permanent bliss. Even after great revelations, the hero descends from the mountain to find a bunch of jokers poo poo-ing on his big God reveal parade.

Worse than the inefficacy of these “positive” strategies is how they inversely impact on your mental health and ability to adapt.

They create false and unattainable expectations. There are a lot of people out there trying to convince the masses that everlasting happiness is possible. Subscribing to that idea means you are going to feel bad about yourself when you’ve failed to meet that perfect standard.

The rules of that game are set against you because they are built on a world of fictions. There is no state of everlasting happiness. Worse, the more you chase after it, the further it gets away from you. It is simply unattainable. This is the great lie that we tell ourselves – if only I had one more thing, I would finally be happy. You’ll never be wealthy, skinny, smart, funny or cool enough until “x”. All of this adds up to one simple mental outcome – you are inadequate as you currently are. That constant craving is what keeps you anchored in a feeling of dissatisfaction.  

They make your mental states more unpleasant. Challenging mental states are like quicksand; the more you wrestle with them, the deeper you sink into them. Positive thinking as an antidote to negative thinking creates a similar sinking effect because it re-enforces the very state you are seeking to work through. It’s like giving a bully attention – the mind feeds off the energy you are directing at it – every positive counter point strengthens the resolve of the mental bully. When positivity is used as a counterpoint in your mind, you increase the likelihood of an ongoing internal debate. It strengthens the resolve of your mind to keep engaging you on both sides of the argument. You are literally setting yourself against yourself.

Jonathan Haidt describes this mental phenomenon in The Happiness Hypothesis:

“When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved. When that goal is an action in the world (such as arriving at the airport on time), this feedback system works well. But when the goal is mental, it backfires. Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations.”

Take this same analogy and apply it to positive thinking: “I should only be having good thoughts” is your white bear. Because the mind is a relational machine, it will amplify anytime your mind is out of sync with the original moral imperative. It will forever be scanning for negative thoughts, which will in turn make them more noticeable, even creating a hyper vigilance or sensitivity to negative thinking. You have literally told your mind: “Keep me informed anytime you start thinking negative thoughts”. The mind is like any other machine – it will output with great precision anything you ask of it.   

It can make you less flexible.  When Seth Godin talks about “The Dip” he is talking about that gut check moment that all entrepreneurs encounter; a setback that could be overcome with persistence.  The trouble he points out – many people won’t venture through that dark valley. They simply give up. What separates the dippers from the retreaters? The dippers have the tenacity to keep going. They don’t walk the path of life expecting a world of never-ending double rainbows. They embrace the rain and waddle through the puddles.

Positivism can create rigidity. Rigidity is the antithesis of psychological flexibility; your ability to cope with a range of experiences including situations that seem hopeless. When you approach your mental experience with a singular and unrealistic view of a world of only positives everything starts to narrow. Narrowness creates constriction. Constriction is how your anxiety auntie greets you at a family reunion – squeezing the sheer life out of you despite better intentions.

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Written by
Mark Stolow