I Don’t Want to Think Positive

Day 12 – Call bullsh*t on something. What’s something that is just ridiculous?

After Charlotte © 2012 Jane Waterman
After Charlotte © 2012 Jane Waterman

There are lots of things I could call bullsh*t on in terms of the treatments and attitudes concerned with depression, but I’d like to focus on something more fundamental.

Why is it socially unacceptable to feel sad? I’m not talking about the mind-numbing wretched despair of depression, which I’m sure any person would be happy to avoid. I’m talking about feeling sad. I presume that as human beings we were born with the capacity and natural range to express both joy and sorrow, so why do social norms decree that we toss half of that capacity out as undesirable?

This whole witch-hunt regarding sadness has deputized even the stranger on the street (or the internet) to encourage us when we mention sadness to ‘think positive’ and to demonize us if we actually express it. Even worse, there is now a whole school of thought that says we’ve attracted it to ourselves if even a spark of a negative thought crosses our mind. I can’t tell you how annoying that is.

Think positive: what does that even mean? This unnatural dichotomizing of thoughts into positive and negative thinking has a totally Orwellian flavour to it. I have visions of the Thought Police sifting through my head and throwing me into jail at the first hint of a negative thought. I hear choruses of uniformed men and women chanting, ‘Positive good, negative bad!’ What a ghastly future that would be. Oh dear, is that a negative thought? Am I condemned to Orwell’s Room 101 for eternity?

As someone who has lived with depression for many years, I had difficulty feeling any emotion, including joy and sorrow. Why is it that in my golden years, as I begin to feel both emotions, I have to toss the latter out with suspicion? Yes, I know sadness can be a gateway to depression, but sometimes it’s just an emotion and it’s okay to feel it.

When visited by sadness, I feel the aforementioned Thought Police looking over my shoulder, and I question myself. I even feel guilty when I feel sad or ‘negative’. Surely it’s our birthright to feel sad sometimes? I may have a fleeting thought about a future without my partner and surely the natural reaction to that is to feel sad – to feel a momentary human surge of sorrow and panic about being alone? Do those who cajole us to think positive really brim with joy at thoughts like this? Likely they would say I shouldn’t think those thoughts at all. Is it really possible to never have a random thought? Isn’t random thought the birthplace of creativity? Doesn’t random thought open a whole world of hypotheses and thought experiments?

I’d like to know who co-opted the word ‘positive’ to mean good, and the word ‘negative’ to mean bad. In my student days as a physicist, I happily accepted that positive and negative were poles of a magnet, or charges on a proton and electron respectively. Both of these things are needed to make up the universe. Should I now regard the electron with suspicion, discard it, and consequently, the fundamental matter that surrounds us because it is negative? Will the universe fall apart because there’s a movement to outlaw the negative?

Who gets to decide exactly which thoughts are negative? Who determined that sorrow and tears were undesirable? If we cry at the beauty of a sunset, is that negative? My darling better half can cry at the drop of a hat, but does that mean we should outlaw hats as the gateway to the desolation of negative thinking? I think not.

If someone is actually sad, or worse, depressed, do you honestly think they feel better if you say, “Why don’t you think positive?” In admonishing them, you have effectively rejected their present state and by extension, them. Isn’t that likely to make them feel even worse? Doesn’t it sound a little like – ahem – negative reinforcement?

I remember in a protracted period of clinical depression I actually refrained from plastering a pleasant smile on my face one day. I privately congratulated myself for allowing myself to be real. One of my work colleagues barged into my office, looked at my face and said with annoyance, “Why do you look so miserable?” The rebuke collapsed any sense of self-mastery I had, and left me feeling actually miserable, whereas before, I just felt sad.

It’s reached the point that I shudder when someone uses the word positive. Why have so many otherwise sensible people spoiled a perfectly nice word to mean something we have to flail ourselves with if we fall short of societal expectations? Why can’t it be something like our dear negative electron that just is?

I defend my right to my thoughts, whether they are positive or negative. I refuse to let an arbitrary jury deem which ones are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. I demand the right to think however I please and not conform to either positive or negative thinking. I embrace the feelings of both joy and sorrow, and revile a unipolar world where only one emotion is acceptable. I look forward to the day I can smile or cry and not question the validity of either experience.

How about you?


Did this post resonate with you or help you in some way? Let me know in the comments below! If you’d like to support my work, you can buy me some writing time! This helps to support my work and keep it accessible and ad-free!

Jane Waterman

Hi, I’m Jane! I create blogs, fiction, art, and adaptive yoga as I seek peace and healing in this strange and sometimes beautiful world. I’ve been chronically ill and probably crazy for 30 years, but I try not to let it stop me!

Please visit the about page to learn more about me and my hopes for this community! If you’d like to support my work, please visit my tip jar at ko-fi.com/jane or my ongoing creative projects at patreon.com/janewaterman.



7 Responses

  1. Gosh, this is such a thought-provoking post. Sometimes, when I'm just feeling upset or sad about something, I feel like it's abnormal. Because there definitely is this expectation that we're all supposed to be "happy" all the time. But what is happiness really? Is it having a lot of friends or buying material things? I do sometimes think that "thinking positive" can be beneficial, but in general, it's overkill. We need to learn how to deal with our emotions as they come–the good and the bad. Because that's life!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Katie. I'm glad that we're still free enough to ask these questions. I honestly feel like the 'think positive' movement has led to a bit of bullying where people are left to question whether what they feel is 'okay'. As you say – we need to develop that level of self-mastery where we can handle our emotions because that's what life is about. Many thanks, Jane.

  2. It's funny but I have been reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called "Bright-Sided: How the relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. The copyright date is 2009 so it is not even too old.

    On the front flap she talks about the downside of positive thinking – that is to say personal self-blame and national denial. She feels that we need existential courage and courage. It sounds like your kind of book and I swear it just crawled out from under the big chair last weekend

  3. Thanks, Annette, that sounds like my kind of book. I saw from the reviews that she personally experienced that kind of "well you've got cancer so your attitude must have attracted it". That's so scary to me. At the risk of sounding a little paranoid, I can't help but wonder if that kind of attitude is encouraged by the medical system, to discourage a much-needed outrage at why cancer is such an epidemic. There must be terrible things wrong with our food and environment that it's become, for example, almost natural for a woman to have to expect to go through breast cancer. I'll check out the library to see if they have it.

  4. wow thank you from my heart for writing this. I've had those same thoughts so increasingly over the past five or six years and it's encouraging and saddening (!) at the same time to read these thoughts from an absolute stranger. I find it both awe inspring and maddening that we can't find an allowance or a common denominator here. I am sad that I still feel judged for feeling "negative, dark" emotions almost all the time! and sad even more because I am also faced with such repulsion and rejection. Why is being positive and happy the only acceptable way? Why is it not ok to look at our lives and realize what makes us feel down and mourn the time we've spent being in that situation? I've read into some spiritual, and now recently, psychological views that believe that "positive thought" is bogus, and that really, the power of thought is what gets us where we are, doing what we're doing. We can use our thoughts to work through life. Not so much our reality it seems, that's just some "sappy happy positives" who think they've got control over their lives. I don't buy into that, I've seen too much happen in my life that was contrary to the cliches, and I've done everything right, and everything's happened wrongly. Thank you for the THOUGHT inspiring post. And kudos for your honesty.

    1. Hello Tova,

      Thanks so much for your wonderful message. I'm always glad that I can inspire people to think, and in the process, encounter like-minded souls like yourself. While I'm not against feeling happy, I'm not against feeling sad either! I've read a fair bit around this topic and would like to read more, but all that I have read (from more balanced sources) is that it is not realistic to be happy all the time, and this actually causes more sadness!

      Take Christmas for instance. While it is a wonderful time of joy and family for many, there are many who spend Christmas alone. This leads to a sense of failure when one does not have the 'hallmarks' of happiness and connection in one's life. Instead of feeling satisfied with where one is, we can often feel longing for connections or experiences that other have, instead of being happy with where we are. I think a lot of Christmas depression has its roots in these feelings. There's no way that many people with depression can live up to this kind of hype.

      Also, as you've noted, being judged for being authentic to our feelings does little to make us happier, right? I spent most of my life trying to juggle my feelings (and consequently lost all true sense of them) to be what others expected me to be. I find that I feel a lot more inner contentment and peace when I can honestly express who I am and how I feel, without having to construct an elaborate "front person" to satisfy other people's expectations.

      I've found it much more satisfying and 'saner' to express myself in forums like my blog (and if I can't be myself here, then where?) and connect with a minority of people who feel the same way and deserve the same right to be content to be human, with all that involves: happiness, sadness, playfulness, confusion, fear, and the entire range of our emotions.

      Thanks again, Tova.



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