In a world of 'good vibes only,' this author wants you to strive for emotional honesty
Toxic positivity can make people experiencing difficult emotions feel unwelcome, says Nora McInerny
Despite trendy home decor declaring "good vibes only" — a mantra demanding people leave tough emotions at the door — Nora McInerny says that in reality, life's vibes are, at best, a mixed bag.
"I'm a person who knows that life, for most people, is not just a highlight reel," the author, podcaster and remarried widow told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.
In her new book of essays, Bad Vibes Only, McInerny challenges an overly optimistic culture — one that continually strives for self-improvement and ignores the messy, authentic emotions of human existence.
For example: how walking into a room with aggressively upbeat furnishings can leave her feeling unwelcome.
"I understand what people mean when they buy something like that or display something like that. I don't think they mean, 'I'm not interested in hearing about the pain or suffering that my loved ones are going through,'" said McInerny.
"But it does have the effect on a person who is not feeling good vibes or who is dealing with the reality of life … of making you feel like you better tuck that away for another time."
Instead of banishing any negative vibes, McInerny wants people to practice what she calls "emotional honesty."
She practices that herself, having written and spoken extensively about the grief of dealing with her husband's and her father's deaths in 2014.
Bad, awkward and uncomfortable vibes, she argues, can help us form more interesting relationships, conversations and life experiences.
"Have you ever read a good book where it's just a pleasant 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, frankly, boring. It's boring."
The dark side of pointing to the bright side
Though not clinical in nature, "toxic positivity" is the term coined to describe this particular brand of chasing perpetual happiness.
Susan David, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School, has defined it as a form of denial. "When you tell someone to 'be positive,' you're basically saying to them, 'My comfort is more important than your reality,'" she writes.
It can manifest in well-intentioned suggestions that "It's not all bad!" or to "Look on the bright side!" when a friend or co-worker shares an uncomfortable story or experience. It's what comes before the reminder that no amount of positive thinking would have changed the terminal cancer diagnosis of McInerny's late husband.
[Toxic positivity] can contribute to more shame and actually significantly worsen their mood.- Dr. Saunia Ahmad
We're all guilty of it, says Brett Ford, a professor of psychology 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 too often we see happiness as desirable, while bad feelings are viewed as a problem to be fixed, says Ford.
Though it may seem obviously beneficial to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses, research, including Ford's own, suggests the opposite can be true. That's because constant judgment of one's emotions can form what's known as meta-emotions — feelings about feelings — that compound and exacerbate our discomfort.
"The more you kind of judge and evaluate your emotions — think that they're good or bad, want to get rid of them — the worse your psychological health," Ford says.
Dismissing difficult emotions with a statement like "good vibes only" can send a harmful message to those experiencing depression or anxiety, said Dr. Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director at Toronto Psychology Clinic.
"It communicates that they're doing something wrong ... and it can contribute to more shame and actually significantly worsen their mood," she said.
Emotions are, ultimately, informative. Fear tells us to run away from danger. Anger tells us to assert ourselves. Hurt says that something is missing in our life.
"In order to get out of that feeling, you have to go through it first," Ahmad said. "So in order to get out of the pain, you've got to go through the pain first."
That might mean avoiding the urge to push away negative emotions and, instead, accept them as transitory. Doing so can actually help them pass more quickly.
Emotional honesty for loved ones and yourself
This isn't to say there's no place for positivity. "Certainly we do talk to people about a balance," said Ahmad.
The psychologist might encourage someone who's feeling angry to write down the things they're grateful for, to help bring perspective to both the painful and the joyful.
Similarly, social settings that provide a temporary escape from uncomfortable emotions can be useful while processing feelings.
In her book, McInerny describes herself as the saddest happy person — or, conversely, the happiest sad 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 pooper," she said, laughing.
And while she's calling for us all to be more truthful with our emotions, she acknowledges that honesty can sometimes be reserved for trusted listeners — and, especially, yourself.
"The check-out kid at Target does not deserve the truth when he asks how I'm doing. He really doesn't," she said.
"He does not get paid to hear that."
Interview with Nora McInerny produced by Amil Niazi.