On average, someone asks me if I’m ok, four times a day. I kept track for a month.
It’s well meant, but it pushes some serious buttons.
I say yes, because I’m supposed to, & because, you know, it’s true. As true as anything else. Yes, I’m ok: I haven’t just received some sad news; I have the same number of fingers I had when I woke up this morning.
I just don’t smile & make small talk all the time. I’m not hype in the morning. I work with teenagers all day, so I value quiet. Deeply. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to engage in small talk. & sometimes, I feel things other than happy. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I mean, didn’t you guys see Inside Out?
People’s reactions to perceived unhappiness, especially in women & young people, are interesting. Those reactions are often very intense. Strangers & acquaintances alike feel compelled to chastise me for not being grateful for my life, or to remind me that my situation could be worse, or that I’m beautiful & should therefore go through life gifting the world with my permanently bared teeth.
It’s worse online, where Instagram & Facebook often feel overrun by positivity pushers who replace fitspo with memes that demand I never feel bad or self-conscious or anything less than 100% pure gratitude for every single experience of my day. Everything is a gift, the positivity pressure tells me, so say thank you.
Beyond being teeth-scrapingly annoying, I contend that this insistence on looking only at the bright side is harmful & maybe worse for overall happiness. Honestly, the last thing I need is one more thing to feel like I’m not doing “right,” & when the response to me feeling emotions outside of the scope of joy is “BE HAPPIER BE GRATEFUL LOOK AT YOUR BEAUTIFUL LIFE!!!!!!” it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing at this, too. (To be clear, I’m not against thinking positively, or reframing a situation by finding the good in it. But the policing of people’s feelings isn’t an act of positivity, & it can cause anxiety in people who are experiencing a normal & healthy range of emotions.)
Positivity pressure is insidious & easily internalized, & it can block real growth. Nearly a year ago, I jumped with both feet into an Instagram challenge aimed at body acceptance & confronting mindset. Led by an inspiring fitness personality, alongside courageous women, I interrogated my long-held beliefs about my worth, my body, & my value. I practiced self-love and kindness, owning up to negative self-talk, sharing details about my past that I had never really articulated. & I posted a bunch of photos I would never have considered sharing – half-clothed, moving, precious few angles to disguise the realities of my body. Everything about this challenge was about exposing the little-seen parts of my life, bringing to light that which I hid in shame. It was liberating & empowering…& hard. On the final day of the challenge, I posted the photo below:
& promptly burst into tears. Quite literally, the next moment, I was puddled on my bed, in that same bikini I had posed in so proudly.
It took me a few minutes of gut-shaking sobs to form any words about what I was feeling, & at first I picked up my old storyline right where I had left it: I was a fraud, I told myself, because I didn’t feel as confident as I was portraying in the photographs. It took quite a few more minutes of crying, some sweatpants, two cats & a boyfriend to cuddle, & a healthy pour of wine to clarify my thinking. It wasn’t that I was faking these photos, pretending to be “cured” of my self-consciousness for the camera while really hating myself inside. I genuinely felt confident, but I was also scared. I was proud of myself, but the deeply rooted shame I’ve carried for so long wasn’t going to disappear in two weeks. Even while I admired my reflection, I wasn’t completely at peace with my body in this bikini. None of that made me a fraud or a phony; it just means that I’m a human with complex emotions (again, thanks, Pixar!).
As I look back over the photos from the challenge now, I realize another reason I was left howling like I’d just been skinned alive; I had. Between the physical & emotional exposure, committing to this challenge meant committing to being voluntarily vulnerable. I’d been avoiding vulnerability for most of my life, surviving by focusing on protecting myself as best I could from people’s opinions & attention. Shifting the mindset I grew up with requires vulnerability, but the pressure of social media & others’ eyes felt like an expectation, if not a demand, to bare skin & soul with a smile.
I know that no one except me made me participate in this challenge & try to bow to this perceived pressure. But the pressure exists, the “look on the bright side” & “are you ok? you’re not smiling,” nudges mount to heavy weight. It’s very difficult to separate the positivity pressure from what is motivational & supportive. Part of this is just in the nature of memes – they aren’t really designed to open dialogue, but instead to be bite-sized status updates that viewers can like & share. There isn’t really room to question the sentiment expressed in a meme, or to complicate the message; they quickly become mindless mantras that get passed around the internet & absorbed into our psyche.
I also think mindset challenges like this can bring up that internal backlash in those of us who are trying to tackle deeply rooted patterns. As I try to actively engage in shifting my perspective & being kind to myself, the habits of my mind seem to come out in full force. One thing I’ve been telling myself recently is that this is not full force; it’s a dying effort. These feelings, these words, those negative thoughts, they’re scrambling to hold on to me, & as I get stronger & shake them off, they leap up & grab at me. But it’s not because they’re stronger or bigger. They’re shrinking & scared.
This is also when I try to make lists of Cans & Haves, instead of engaging in the Can’ts & Lacks. Sometimes, even as I stare at a photo that’s bringing up all the negatives & self-bashing, I’ll make those lists of I can & I have. It helps, in just the smallest way, but those tiny victories get us that much closer to giant ones.
That’s hardly a foolproof system. One recent morning, my friend sent out some photos from her birthday party. It had been a lovely evening – I helped cook a delicious meal under the tutelage of professional chefs with some of my dearest friends & some new ones. I actively tried to hold that in my mind as I opened the photos, but I still felt disappointed & disgusted by the shots of me, even as I repeated that my body is a good body. The mean whisper inside me was hissing, why can’t you like yourself? You should know better by now.
It’s a page from my Instagram, from right after Boyfriend & I had moved in together. We were in the process of settling in & building our dream apartment. Naturally, it was a mess. & I felt like a mess. Luckily, an IG friend had recently watched the gorgeous conversation between Erin Brown & Molly Galbraith. As I rewatched this primer on self-love, it reminded me to pause & take stock of where I was & what I had, without Shoulds & By Nows. So this is the mantra I need to carry with me.
What I want to remember is that I don’t have to react to my life in any way other than the way that I feel. I’m not failing if I’m not transformed in two weeks, if I’m not joyously dismantling the structures that, for better or worse, have governed my life thus far. I can be sad, or angry, or uncertain, & there is nothing wrong with that, & that doesn’t mean I can’t also be happy. I’m not failing by allowing myself to feel what I feel.
& I want to remember that the best response to someone demanding my smile remains:
This post is dedicated with mad love to the women of Radical Renewal – thanks for inspiring me to define positivity on my own terms!
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