Why Just Be Positive Doesn’t Work

Jul 28, 2020 | Inside, Positivity & Hurray | 0 comments

I have a practice of being honest about my feelings and what I’m going through. It is part of my values to be authentically me. Sometimes when I share with people that I’m working through an anxious time, or am experiencing feelings of homesickness or hopelessness, I get this response: “well, just focus on the positive!” or “OK but what are you grateful for?” It’s stunning to me how uncomfortable we are with some “negative” feelings. And while I know that these loving people want to help me feel better, they are not really doing me or themselves any favors. 

The just be positive suggestions can actually be quite toxic. In fact, toxic positivity has become a major hindrance in our culture. While it seems helpful and motivational, this “only think happy thoughts” narrative can actually be quite damaging. Good news, though, there’s something we can do instead!

Our discomfort with the “negative”

We’ve been taught that our “negative” feelings are shameful, inconvenient, or wrong. This is why we apologize when we cry in public, or excuse ourselves if we’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s why some family members ask us not to make a fuss, or gush. It’s why we’ve been told we’re too dramatic or emotional. Feelings – especially those that are considered “negative” – are just not ok in our culture. 

So when someone says “just be positive”, what we often hear is “your negative emotions are unacceptable. You’re being a drag. Please shut those down and feel something more positive.” Or worse, we hear a story in our minds like “there is something wrong with you when you feel and express negative emotions. It makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like it. In addition, you are less worthy of my love, friendship, and attention with these messy feelings. Please change yourself to be more acceptable.” (If you watch Brooklyn 99 I totally hear this being said in Captain Holt’s voice!) 

For that reason, it’s likely that we haven’t been taught any helpful ways to actually deal with negative emotions. The most common examples we’ve seen of handling uncomfortable emotions are quite extreme. On one hand, we watch people wallow and get lost in the darker feelings. This is because they stop at the feeling and do not get to the belief that’s underneath (something we discuss at length in my coaching container). Once you get to the belief, you can sort through what is true and what is fiction and make a loving and informed decision about what to do next. 

Another extreme way we often handle difficult emotions is to ignore them, push them down, or (as I say with my coaching clients) sweep them under the rug or stuff them into a closet. This is really common. We’ve all done it! We move on to “think happy thoughts” and “just focus on the positive” or “just be grateful for what you DO have”. That’s all well and good. And. What happens to those uncomfortable feelings and beliefs? Do they just … go away? No. 

They sit within us. They grow. They trip us up. They keep asking for our attention. And they will get bigger and louder until we finally deal with them.

“All emotions, even those that are suppressed and unexpressed, have physical effects. Unexpressed emotions tend to stay in the body like small ticking time bombs—they are illnesses in incubation.”

– Marilyn Van Derbur

That could mean you’re super duper positive one minute and then snapping at someone the next. Or life is going grand and then you spiral into negative thoughts and worry. Or you’re pushing through all the feelings only to be benched by an illness or overwhelm.

If you don’t believe it’s true it won’t work for you. 

Sometimes in an attempt to be positive or focus on the good, we use affirmations or repeat phrases to ourselves. What we may really be doing is trying to convince or validate ourselves with this positive phrase, instead of affirming ourselves. 

When I teach how to use affirmations, we discuss the difference between affirmation and validation. The main takeaway is that validation is trying to believe what someone or something else says is true about you. And affirmation is affirming what you already know to be true about you. Saying positive things alone won’t necessarily change what you believe to be true. But using positive affirmations to affirm the truth of who you are can be helpful! Don’t actually feel positive about something? If you don’t believe it’s true it won’t work for you. 

Solution: Get the truth instead. That may mean having to be honest about the negative emotion and what it’s bringing up. Only when you face something fully can you truly deal with it and eliminate any misbeliefs, fears, misunderstandings. Once you actively discard those, THEN you can focus on the true and positive things! 

Ignoring an issue with gratitude doesn’t make it go away. 

Skipping past any true hurt, shame, or beliefs and only focusing on the positive means that there is a part of you that you are ignoring. Ignoring and avoiding rarely solves an issue. And while the goal isn’t to believe the misbeliefs or stay stuck in a negative thought cycle, you can’t fully move on or heal if you don’t address the issue at hand. 

Think if there was a Lego piece on the floor in your living room and you were walking around barefoot. If you stepped on that Lego piece, it would hurt your foot. {There are few greater pains in life!} Now you have a decision to make. 

You can “just focus on the positive” and think “I am grateful that I have the funds to purchase Legos and the creative ability to build with Legos!” or “At least I didn’t break my foot!” Cool, cool, cool. The gratitude is great, and looking on the bright side is great. That may keep you from spiraling into despair and only focusing on the pain. What do you want to do with the Lego? 

Ignoring that it’s there will only cause you future pain. Inevitably you’ll step on it again. 

Solution: You can practice gratitude and look on the bright side AND deal with the issue at hand. In this case, it’s a Lego block causing you pain. In your life, it may be a difficult emotion, an uncomfortable discussion, a step outside of your comfort zone. Only focusing on the positive is ignoring the issue and setting yourself up for future pain. 

Find safe ways to deal with the issues and the feelings around it. A Lego may be easy to remove from the floor, and inner housekeeping of your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions requires some practice and guidance. Work with someone one on one or join a group to learn how to work through your beliefs!

Feelings pile up and explode.

One of my favorite ideas we discuss in my coaching containers is one that I first addressed with a dear coach of mine. It’s the concept of “The Emotions Closet”. The “emotions closet” is where we put feelings or beliefs that we are too busy, too ashamed, or too uncomfortable to deal with in the moment. Sometimes, it’s wise to take a breath and stow something away for later. We can then lovingly deal with it when we are ready. 

But most of us have a habit of stuffing our emotions into the closet and not sorting through or truly dealing with them for a long time – if ever. We do this for many reasons. Mostly we avoid the feelings in the closet because we are ashamed, embarrassed, or may feel overwhelmed by them. But feelings are meant to be felt. So when we do this, we stuff that closet so full of emotions that one day when we go to put another one in there, it’s so full that when we crack the door open the entire pile of emotions comes crashing down on us. For me, this looked like spending a full day feeling hopeless, crying, and in a state of anxiety. I was being forced to feel and deal with all of the emotions at once. 

So when we jump over any negative feelings that arise and “just focus on the positive”, we are metaphorically stuffing those uncomfortable emotions into the closet. We aren’t truly dealing with them, addressing them, or feeling them. We are simply letting them pile up to come crashing down on us later. 

Solution: The key is to lovingly unpack and sort through feelings that we’ve stowed away on a regular basis. This may sound silly, but I actually schedule in time into my calendar to deal with my emotions and the beliefs underneath! That regular practice helps me sort through the closet of emotions before it becomes too full and overwhelming to deal with, or before it explodes. It takes regular cleaning and care. In fact, this is what I teach in my coaching containers, and what I practice in real life! 

“…not only does faking it not work as a confidence booster, but it almost certainly make us feel less secure, because knowingly masquerading as something we’re not makes us anxious.”

-Katty Kay

Faking it = faux fulfillment 

As mentioned above, repeating positive things to yourself that you don’t believe won’t really resonate inside of you as true. To your mind, it will feel like you are pretending, or faking it. The “fake it ‘til you make it” idea is one of my least favorite in the motivation world and often activated when we’re told to “just be positive”.  

Whether you’re talking to yourself, or showing up in the world by “faking it”, it will eventually end in disappointment. So maybe you are struggling with feelings of “I am not enough” or “what will they think of me”. Pushing those aside and pretending everything is amazing may result in outward success of nailing the interview or giving the speech, but will feel less fulfilling inside because you’ll think “I got away with it! I tricked them!” 

What you’re really doing is fooling yourself. I get it. Positivity and joy are the goal, right? We all want to feel good. I do! But when we do it this way, it’s like trying to take a shortcut to joy. The intention is great. But the impact isn’t. Shortcuts to joy lead to short term joy. And what I want for you is long lasting fulfillment. 

The Solution: Learn how to be authentically yourself and feel at home in who you are in all situations. You may or may not decide to share all parts of who you are with others, and open the doors for folks to see everything, but being honest with yourself, on the inside with your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, is very important for true happiness. 

When negative stories or thoughts arise, instead of ignoring them, honor them and work with them. It’s OK to witness and honor the “negative” things you are feeling or your current authentic state. Only when you acknowledge who you are, and where you are now can you take real, aligned steps forward. Faking it with “everything is so great!” will only lead to fake success, or faux fulfillment. It is a practice to lovingly acknowledge and deal with the tough stuff, so that you can move on to real fulfillment. And the real deal (and you!) are worth the work. 

What to do instead

You may have noticed that the solutions to the issues that arise when trying to “just be positive” are pretty similar:

  • Do not ignore the negative stuff or uncomfortable emotions or they will continue to show up
  • Stop bypassing your emotions and learn to work with them
  • Lovingly deal with your emotions and get the belief underneath 
  • Eliminate beliefs that aren’t true or aren’t serving you
  • Be truthful and be authentically yourself
  • Create a practice to sort through feelings, beliefs, and thoughts on a regular basis 

Here’s the deal: true, long lasting joy and positivity is built from the inside, out. That means exploring within yourself and finding those buried emotions you’ve been avoiding. It means really facing the feelings to get the belief underneath so you can eliminate or let go of what’s not true. It means redecorating the way you talk to yourself, and the beliefs that you have about yourself so that you can stand firm on a foundation of self-love and understanding if those feelings pop up again. It means being honest with yourself so you can come back to the truth of who you are and really celebrate

It takes courage and guts to lovingly confront the feelings. And *great news* once you do, you can get to the belief underneath and clean out what’s tripping you up, redecorate with self-love and confidence, and say hurray.

How? There are many ways to do this kind of inner exploration! Therapy and one-on-one coaching, retreats and workshops, and more. And, while some of us may need that deeper support (just like some rooms in a house may need a deep clean), we can also learn to do the daily practices or “regular inner housekeeping” within us. I help people do just that with my coaching containers and the ERC Plan. It’s time to Eliminate (not just push down to have come up later), Redecorate (with self-love and understanding), and Celebrate (who you truly are!) 

Remember, being positive is lovely. It’s something I aim for, for sure! I’m “Hurray Kimmay”, after all. Not “what the hey Kimmay”. But enough of the fake stuff. I want the real thing. It is important to me to cultivate true, lasting, authentic hurray within me so that I can bring it out and into the world. And I want that for you, too. 


Your Turn: Have you ever been told to “just be positive”? Did you wind up in the same place eventually, or did it solve the issue? Without judgement, take a look at a current or past issue and ask yourself if you are stuffing emotions into the closet. Would it serve you and those around you to lovingly deal with the emotions and get the belief underneath? Share it with me over at @hurraykimmay on Instagram and TikTok!

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 Credits: Images of Kimmay by Brooklynn E Photography in Woodward, Oklahoma at The Ranch at Woodward. No airbrushing or altering! Ever.