The Cult of Oppressive Positivity


Trends come and go. Some leave indelible marks upon a culture, and others just fade away. When a trend is couched in terms like “positive psychology” one might expect that any influence it exerts on a culture will be, well…positive. But is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?

The contemporary positive psychology movement was founded in the ’80s by Martin Seligman, so you would think he would extol only positive virtues, yet even Seligman advises against too much reliance on positive thinking.

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman writes “positive thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,’ in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence.” But while some people may be able to buy into affirmations and other positive statements like these, Seligman warns that “many educated people, trained in skeptical thinking, cannot manage this kind of boosterism.”

Every decade or so another wave of positive thinking zealotry gets pushed a little further into the American mainstream. Beyond merely thinking positively, these belief systems foment an inability to hold, process, or empathize with so-called “negative” feelings and emotions. The result is a culture or atmosphere that becomes toxic and oppressive.

Yoga as Anxiety-Booster

In 2006, I was teaching classical yoga and meditation classes avocationally when the film What the Bleep hit the interwebs. It was a hit with spiritual seekers who eschew traditional forms of religion needs favor of more new age thought. Presented as blend of mysticism and hard science—where quantum physics and biology meet mystical, magical thinking—the film was roundly dismissed as pseudoscience by scientific researchers, but it won a cult following that took root hard and fast in the yoga world.

I’m a die-hard fan of speculative fiction and so I watched the film several times; some of the ideas explored were more solid than others (hello, peptides and hormones, then chemicals of “love”). Then, two years later another docudrama film, The Secret, swept over the yoga landscape. Essentially, The Secret is a contemporary regurgitation of Nathaniel Hill’s 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich. All of these works shared a common theme: that we can create a better, happier, wealthier reality simply by thinking in a more positive way about things.

When I had first studied yoga, I had the great fortune of learning from Indian and American teachers who had been at it for 30 years or more. Old-school yoga was taught as a discipline; something you needed to make a commitment to in order to reap the rewards. It was never meant to be a fitness craze. The rewards weren’t buns of steel, a glowing complexion, radical serenity, or even the much-lauded flexibility yoga is renowned for. No, the rewards of yoga were self-mastery and understanding. Put very simply, the purpose of classical yoga was to settle the unruly mind into a place of clear seeing. Nirvana? Sure, it’s a thing, but even that wasn’t the goal. The ultimate goal was being present in the moment and seeing things clearly, without distortion.

The arrival of these magical thinking belief systems changed the American yoga landscape. Teachers with very little life experience to temper their beliefs became obsessed with preaching affirmations during class. When I was running teacher training programs, I noticed apprentice teachers doling out feel-goodisms in class, explicitly telling students how they should feel in the moment: bliss, joy, passion, enlightened, and actively suppressing any other honest expression of frustration, disappointment, fear, or worry.

That was a red flag, full-stop moment for me for several reasons. First off, yoga’s job is to transform, but not to indoctrinate. Secondly, it is patently irresponsible and egotistical for anyone—regardless of profession or training—to tell anyone else how or what to feel in a given moment. Feelings are fluid and changeable and sovereign to each of us, and none are inherently bad. Emotions are signals between our body, brain, and our subconscious and conscious minds. Put another way, feelings are a type of data: they inform. Pathologizing undesirable feelings opens the door to neurosis faster than you can say “namaste”.

Another example: A student of mine, Teresa*, came to me for help with her sister, Jane*, who had developed breast cancer. Jane was coursing through all the stages of grief—as one does when faced with a major loss or a serious threat against one’s life—and Teresa could not abide her sister’s alternating depression, anger, and fear, and sorrow. She asked me to create a program for Jane to help her with her recovery.

Having worked with hundreds of individuals in need of specialized, private instruction, I was happy to help, but I needed to speak with Jane so that I could make sure I was personalizing her program correctly. Teresa declined to make an introduction. “Can’t you just give her some things to do that will help her feel happy?” Teresa asked. “I can’t stand to see her so sad. It can’t be healthy.”

It would be natural to feel discomfort and be protective of a loved one who was faced with a difficult diagnosis and the stages of grief aren’t linear or tidy, but they are necessary in order to heal. Jane was handling her diagnosis and treatment as holistically as possible. She allowed herself to feel all the turbulent emotions that go with a heavy blow to one’s health and identity. Teresa, however, quite literally couldn’t handle any emotion other than some kind of positive vibe, so she sought to inflict a forced positivity upon her grieving sister.

My experience as a therapeutic yoga instructor was informed by my own process of healing from a violent assault which nearly took my life. For decades I was silent about the fact that a man attempted to kill me; it was far easier to admit I had been raped. Somehow, by contrast, the sexual assault seemed almost inconsequential to almost being murdered. Yet when I expressed the difficult and understandably complex emotions that went along with that violent, life-changing event and the subsequent PTSD I was often accused of being negative, when in fact I was merely seeking to be heard, and seen, and validated.

The #metoo movement was triggering for me but also liberating. Suddenly, I was no longer alone in a “nicewashed” silence that others found more palatable. I was able to speak my truth, be heard, and be seen as a survivor. And although much of my healing had taken place over the preceding decades, I found yet another layer of healing and validation.

As a direct result of Me Too, we are finally talking more openly about rape culture, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. Perpetrators of sexual violence are being held accountable, finally. This is a significant sea-change in American culture, and one that isn’t a moment too soon.

Me Too is also a poignant example of how the #goodvibesonly movement can be toxic; in order for systemic social change to occur we must be able to have honest discussions and hold perpetrators of violence accountable. There is absolutely, positively, nothing positive about sexual assault, rape culture, or systemic misogyny. Silence is complicity, and all too often, forced positivity is a tool of silencing.

Compassionate Communication Needed: Inquire Within

On the national stage, this obsession with positive thinking and good vibes is costing us the ability to genuinely empathize with and care for our fellow citizens at every level of society. When we lose the ability to discuss real and valid feelings or be informed by those feelings, we effectively dampen our ability to be compassionate.

The word compassion literally means to be with strong feeling. Compassion does NOT mean to only share good vibes and pretend away s0-called negative feelings. Genuine compassion does not differentiate between good and bad emotion. It is bearing witness—empathetically—to another’s struggle rather than attempting to fix or change it. Foisting false cheerfulness or positivity on someone in a vulnerable or traumatized state doesn’t fix anything except perhaps our own discomfort with difficult feelings. And when we exchange empathy and compassion for the emotional salve of feel-good positive thinking, we lose the ability to talk constructively about defining issues of our day, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, ableism, and classism.

Too often, positive thinking seems to belong to people in positions of privilege; and it is used to erase the experience of others who are less privileged. And the critical thinkers among us? We’re likely to be dismissed as negative Nellies, because that’s easier than facing one’s own cognitive biases and fear of experiencing complex and sometimes unpleasant emotions. But as Walt Whitman wisely reminds us, we are vast. We contain multitudes. Positive thinking, taken to an extreme is pathological; it becomes a fear of any unwanted feeling one emotion, subject, or problem.

The Problem with Good Vibes Only

About a year ago, I met Erin Donley a Portland-based author and ghostwriter who was challenging this growing culture of toxic positivity. Her book Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down: Face Your Power and Find Your Peace arrived on bookshelves mid-January, 2019. In it, she explores how forced cheerfulness is not only harmful on an individual basis—to the point of being toxic, at times—but also how it upholds systemic injustice, inequity, and oppression.

Donley said she hoped this book would call forth a group of people who want to talk about difficult topics and explore the hard realities we face in our society, but who are oppressed into either silence or a sort of muted, half-truth.

“We need to have these hard conversations about gun violence, racism, or mental illness, for example,” said Donley. “Beyond repeating our beliefs in an echo chamber, we need to be able to discuss difficult subjects honestly in order to foster deeper empathy and connection.”

These are difficult conversations to have on the best of days. Holding an empathetic connection with someone whose views oppose or challenge our own biases is a challenge many of us have become incapable of. But when we try to bring up a difficult topic or  express some deep heartache, sorrow or frustration and are met by the “positivity police” who insist we just need to think happy thoughts—or in the vernacular of positive psychology, to “manifest joy”—that insistence becomes an insidious and subtle form of oppression. It denies the speaker their right to their feelings and beliefs, and in fact is a subtle form of gaslighting.

Just as an equitable social environment is one where all people—regardless of age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation—are present and treated fairly, a healthy emotional environment requires an expansive and inclusive view. While it is not healthy to wallow in self-pity, rage, despair or anger for long periods of time, it is equally unhealthy to deny these feelings and allow them to be expressed in healthy ways.

On the surface, much of the positive psychology movement is all about self-improvement, but Svend Brinkman, a Danish Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University, Denmark, cautions us about the dangers of too much emphasis on “happiness”.

In the last couple of years, Americans have appropriated the Danish term hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”) which is defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Denmark has become a sort of beacon of happiness as a result—and not without deleterious effect.

Brinkman studies the impact of psychiatric diagnoses on individuals and society and has written several books on the dangers of taking self-improvement. In a video interview, Brinkman urged Americans to resist the pressure to improve ourselves and be “reflexively positive”.

“Positive psychology forces people to constantly develop and improve with this positive attitude. It wasn’t always like this in Denmark,” Brinkman said. “Paradoxically, as Danes, because we’re ‘supposed’ to be happy all the time it is making us miserable. I think it’s important for a human being to feel that it’s okay to feel grey or blue. There’s no problem with that. That’s also life.”

Donley concurs. In her book, she describes oppressive positivity—that is, the belief that positive people and optimistic attitudes are required for happiness, success, and healing to occur is a falsehood that many have bought into, hook, line, and sinker.

“It’s a lie that’s constantly being fed to us,” said Donley. “It’s a myth supported by groupthink. You no longer need to digest falsity because it sets an unreasonable standard for society. In reality, all feelings are valid and necessary. The key is to skillfully manage the difficult ones.”

*Not real names.


Erin Donley, Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down
Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
Svend Brinkman, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Game

Artwork © Kija Lucas

3 thoughts on “The Cult of Oppressive Positivity

    • Thanks, Paige. There is a fine line between supporting others and damning or shaming them. I think of that quote “What you resist, persists.” We can’t really make lasting, effective change without first getting super honest about things as they are and accepting reality. That goes both for the individual who is struggling and for those who care about, live with, or work with them. Acceptance and acknowledgement is a BIG first step, and—in my experience—sometimes brings about a shift all on its own.

  1. (woah, what’s with all the caps without the caps lock being on??)
    thank you for this well researched, and clearly expressed, thoughtful piece uma. i’m going to share this.

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