Anne T. Donahue on Why Positivity Can Go F-ck Itself

Because, look: sometimes she thought she could, but it just didn’t work out the way she wanted

A photo of a smashed mug that says "never give up"

(Photo: Jeff Carlson)

Positivity is important. Few things feel worse than when good news is greeted with cynicism or condescension or an underlying subtext that whatever you’re celebrating is doomed. So, to avoid being monsters, we have to be positive. Especially since we’re told that negativity drains and positive manifestations rule. “She thought she could, so she did,” or something like that.

But there’s a difference between being a pessimist and being a person who doesn’t see the glass half full because they recognize the dangers of hope. There’s a difference between a person who acknowledges a friend’s good news with hurtful toxicity and a person who holds their own news close to their heart to build armour around it. There’s a difference between being a defeatist and being real. And when it comes to the latter, there’s a freedom that comes with embracing it. Because there’s comfort in knowing that everything can be shit, that sadness is universal, and that at one point or another, life will blow up and force you to reconcile that part of being alive means sitting with the full spectrum of feelings—not just the marketable sentiments you can find on logo Ts.

Not that I haven’t bought into my fair share of “Believe in yourself, and your dreams will come true” rhetoric. I still live by the code of working hard and feeding into one’s own god complex (my favourite one) to fuel goals and dreams and projects so daunting they seem borderline impossible. I tell myself I’m unfuckwithable and will achieve what I want. “I’ll show you what Elle Woods can do” is a mantra I think is worth carving into whatever desk you’re sitting in. But then you also need balance: because if something goes wrong, or that dream doesn’t come to pass, you still need to be okay. And to get over disappointment, you have to get on its level and feel fine with it. Broken hearts can’t heal through mantras alone.

This winter was long and bad for most of us. (And seriously: if you had a good winter, let me know because I truly believe we were all cursed.) Most of my friends and I found ourselves confronting personal worst-case scenarios and being forced into perpetual greyness, drained from fighting what we’d found ourselves up against. And for a while, I fought it: I bought plants and notebooks that reminded me of how capable I am and I revelled in self care through meditation apps and upgraded yoga mats. I ignored how trapped and fake I felt under the bright lights of Being Positive™ and told myself that what I was feeling could be combatted by intention and self-help tactics; that if I just thought my way through what was going on, I’d tap into my buried Pollyanna tendencies and finally receive a pair of complementary rose-coloured glasses.

It didn’t happen. Instead, I buckled under the stress and cried a lot. I went back to therapy, where I learned that being sad or stuck-feeling or any number of feelings unfit for motivational coffee mugs were human and healthy and as important as not dismissing a friend’s good news. I surrendered to the fact that I just had to deal with my shit and wade through it until it was done with me, and I marathoned and re-marathoned Mad Men (the ultimate show about sad adults) to remind myself that people have always been fucked up and sad. And immediately, I began feeling better. It was a relief to stop pretending; to acknowledge that being a person means that sometimes life is unfair and cruel and fucking hard. So I started talking about it. And writing about it. And I found it was easier to be around my friends and my family and even on the internet when I was being realistic: like, Hey guys, life is being a real dick, but at least we’ve all been there and can relate accordingly.

And eventually, I started to feel further and further removed from rhetorics that dealt exclusively in positivity and belief systems that hinged on the ethos that everything would be fine if you just believed it would be fine. Because sometimes things aren’t fine. And they won’t be fine in the way you thought they would be again. But instead, you will be tinged with experience and re-shaped because of it. And that’s a good thing, because new shapes are important and even better because holy shit, if you can make it through whatever-the-fuck, then you can take on anything. There’s strength in knowing you’ve hit bottom and stared it in the face and then found a way out. There’s safety in realizing you can dive into the darkest parts of yourself and sit with them and accept that they’re as important as the driven, motivated, glamorous parts.

Because, look: sometimes she thought she could, but it didn’t work out the way she wanted. So she told her friends how disappointed she was and how bruised she felt, and found herself getting closer with them because it was a relief to be tarnished and real instead of bright and shiny. Sometimes the connections you form through sadness or struggle are the strongest type. Even if those connections are with the parts of yourself (and the parts of life entirely) can’t be marketed on notebook covers.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
How to Use Professional Jealousy to Get What You *Really* Want
Dressing for How You’re Feeling—Even If How You’re Feeling Is Shit
Even Unf-ckwithable Women Need Help Sometimes