There is a lot of hand-wringing about how fear is spreading faster than the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is some truth to the idea that we humans don’t make good decisions when we are steeped in fear, most of this fear-shaming comes from very privileged individuals—people with recession-proof and virus-proof jobs, people in strong partnerships quarantined with safe others, people who have had high enough incomes for long enough to have emergency savings. These are the people who are preaching mindset work, staying positive, and focusing on what you can control—and this “advice” to “remain positive” is spreading faster than COVID-19 and even faster than fear.
The only people that benefit from individuals continuing to focus on their separate efforts to control “only what they can control” (which, for the most part is their emotions) are the people benefiting from the predatory systems of capitalism and psychiatry in place long before COVID-19. Keeping only positive thoughts in your mind and working on your outlook even as your hours (and thus your “benefits”) get cut doesn’t put food on your table or pay for any healthcare you might need (we are in a pandemic after all). Attempting to deny negative emotions or thoughts in the name of lowering stress doesn’t work when your landlord still demands rent and promises to proceed with evictions as soon as it’s legal again to put people on the streets for failing to be good enough capitalists to build equity for others. The only thing badgering individuals to “remain positive” does is keep society in the grip of unaccountable corporate owners who possess more than half the world’s wealth among the 26 of them. (And you thought people were hoarding toilet paper!)
In a country where nearly half of the citizens live paycheck to paycheck and over half wouldn’t have access to $400 in an emergency, “keeping your mindset in check” as those in power are advising everyone else to do doesn’t work. People in power would love for us to believe that we aren’t at the top with them (with enough assets to “reposition” into stronger stock positions to “ride out this crisis”) because we are lazy, made bad choices, or engage in frivolous spending. In reality, half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck (and are suffering the physiological conditions Western medicine “has no cure for” and the “mental illnesses” all our systems refuse to help in order to guarantee lifelong customers) because wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, rent is unaffordable in every city in the country and the job market is overrun with non-livable-wage work while dignified, livable-wage employment is outsourced, automated, or given to those who could afford college degrees.
Telling individuals to stop focusing on “what they can’t control” is not only gaslighting, it’s inaccurate. There are far more “poor people” and far more “mentally ill” (by the DSM’s standards) than there are people in power—if we focused on what they controlled, we might actually be able to create a world that works for everyone instead of the tiny amount of self-appointed billionaires who have more control over what happens in the world than politicians.
Demanding positivity is gaslighting of the highest order. It’s no surprise a culture such as ours would turn to positivity policing instead of creating robust (not temporary) systems of support, mutual aid and care. Ours is a culture that encourages everyone to “cut toxic people out of your life” without defining what “toxic” actually is. Could it be forcing forgiveness down someone’s throat when you haven’t heard them out? Does automatically labeling difficult things “negative” count? Can we include shaming people for sharing legitimately critical articles of the current administration’s abject but unsurprising failure to provide sensible leadership during a time of crisis in the list of “toxic” behaviors? If not, then what we have is a cult of positivity, not a legitimate tool for help during this extremely challenging time.
It benefits the few people who do control the emotionally abusive, wealth-funneling systems that we call “economy” and “politics” for us masses to focus only on what we can control. It keeps those systems in place even as they appear to give “relief”—which it is very clear is temporary—to the very people it both completely relies upon and those it despises and blames (the workers).
Preaching positivity is also, thus, deeply alienating. Recommending positive thinking during this time is the same thing as responding to mass shootings with “thoughts and prayers.” It’s tone deaf, dismissive and selfish; it makes you feel like you’ve been helpful when you’ve actually done the emotional equivalent of leaving that person in a crowded room alone while they’re crying.
But it’s not helpful. Gratitude, which is a large part of positive thinking, is not sufficient to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, so you’re not “doing it wrong” if you don’t feel better after journaling about what you’re thankful for. Do the people who are preaching positivity really think that people really haven’t thought about just being positive before? What hurting people need is to be seen where they are and joined. This doesn’t mean you have to pile on the negative bandwagon with them, but it also doesn’t mean you harass them with affirmations.
The reason saying positive affirmations has failed so many people is because they just remind you of what your deeper beliefs are and cattle prod those beliefs into defending themselves. We obtain our beliefs from our experiences; if you haven’t had the experience of good health, or a good marriage, or good friends, then telling yourself that you are worthy and deserving of such things (even though it is true) will simply provoke an internal fight. “Staying positive” doesn’t address one’s deeper beliefs or “negative” stories they’ve got in their head, let alone how or why any of that got into them in the first place.
You don’t need to know where every old emotional injury comes from in order to eradicate it, but assuming that “negative” emotions automatically need to be eradicated is part of the problem. This is not in any way to deny the distress many people with “mental illness” experience; it is to say that we need to stop assuming that all of that suffering comes from their internal landscape while overlooking the pervasive and persistent inhumane conditions most people live with. In case it wasn’t obvious before, COVID-19 is laying many of those conditions bare, all of which have their origins in capitalism.
Capitalism, among other things, is COVID-19 fuel. The reason why poor people and people of color, particularly black people, are being hit harder by COVID-19 than rich people and white people is because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. We are not all in this together, which is another reason why the blanket suggestion of “positive thinking” fails.
Except now we know that it was possible all along to provide for our basic needs. What we’re calling a “stimulus package” is emergency socialism. “Cash payments” are an instance of universal basic income. Emergency housing to quarantine those living on the streets is honoring the right of every human for housing. Of course it’s not enough, of course there are major flaws in the COVID-19 relief legislation. What’s being distributed as “relief” should have been in place as a basic society safety net long before the pandemic, but now we all know that it’s possible.
Speaking of inhumane conditions, one such condition would be modern life. How is it okay to continue ad infinitum to ask humanity to go faster, produce more, and consume more with less and less in return? In the midst of undeniable woe wrought by COVID-19, is there room to acknowledge that many people are actually finally able to rest, take a break and stop shaming themselves for struggling to keep up with our always-on society (a society designed by extroverts that demand we never cease activity lest we be found worthless)? Is it okay to state, alongside the legitimate worries, that many of us finally feel like we’re allowed to be our introverted, housecat selves? Can we hold both the massive consequences of job loss in late-stage capitalism and this mini break from the febrile frenetics of late-stage capitalism close enough together to see how closely related the suffering and the jubilation actually are?
It’s hard to see how an adherence to positive thinking would allow that. The many experts touting a “positive mindset” as a way to get through this crisis are speaking to people who depend on or at least prefer society going back to the way it was before the pandemic as soon as possible. Because of the legitimate economic and bodily suffering occurring the world over, it’s difficult to feel okay about having a sense of relief in the slower pace of life and the removal of expectations to constantly be out there hustling, going to meetings, creating value (as if you inherently have no value just by being a person). It’s difficult to articulate hope that the world not go back to normal.
The world as it “normally” was before December of 2019 brought us COVID-19. It also brought us the screeching to a halt an economy that was already not providing for everyone and that necessitated a $2 trillion stimulus package in the US. The world we had before COVID-19 is the reason that stimulus package still isn’t enough to meet basic needs. Our “normal” before COVID-19 is why thousands of people, including healthcare workers are losing their jobs or getting furloughed and thus losing their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic. It’s why landlords think it’s okay to increase rent during this time. Our “normal” before COVID is why the convening of ethics boards to create guidelines for deciding who should receive lifesaving care in the event of a medical-system overwhelm is unchallenged for the monstrosity that it is.
Healthcare workers are being laid off at the same time as hospital systems are predicted to become overwhelmed. But that is not what COVID-19 brought us; it is what the world before COVID-19 brought us. It’s a bit like Ireland’s 300,000 pounds of potatoes that went to feed England every year of the Irish Potato Famine.1 What the average person, the “little” person calls a recession, wealthy people call a wealth transfer. In other words, your tax dollars bail out Wall Street.
It’s convenient for those in power to blame the present recession on COVID-19 when one was coming anyway. The fact that mainstream financial institutions and analysts simply accept the regular production of poverty and misery by naming it “market cycles” is what the world before COVID-19 gave us. That big banks and investment funds are measuring “recovery” in China in terms of increased coal consumption and the attendant increased air pollution is what the world before COVID-19 brought us. That so many doctors, coaches, therapists, and public figures think positive thinking is the solution—as opposed to mass action, organization and systems overhaul—is the complacency, lack of solidarity and out-of-touchness the world before COVID-19 gave us.
Just as positive thinking is not a switch one can just flip, nor is it the universal problem solver. Positive thinking is a deeply individualistic solution and, as such, serves the mainstream thinking of using every resource available to prop up the current system with the crutch called a “stimulus package” and hope it hobbles along on its broken legs long enough to get back to production for those in power. Positive thinking anesthetizes our desire and ability to use this opportunity to create a world that works for everyone. Even if everyone could do it, collective positive thinking won’t do that for the same reason that individual efforts to make your lifestyle more environmentally friendly are not, even if aggregated, going to solve the climate crisis: the responsibility for both COVID-19 and climate change are not distributed equally.
I’m not discouraging the practice of positive thinking if you’ve found that to be helpful for you. In full disclosure, I’ve even found it to be helpful for me at times. But it by itself is not a solution. Acting like it is is toxic. Labeling people who aren’t positive all the time “toxic” is itself toxic. Insinuating that people are failing if they can’t “do” positive thinking or don’t feel better even if they are able to think positive thoughts is toxic (and ableist).
Fear, distress, loneliness, anxiety and anger are all completely appropriate feelings to have during a time like this (as are feelings of gratitude for the rest, relaxing of demands on time and schedule, and genuine joy and laughter at the hilarious and creative things humans are coming up with). It’s the toxic kind of positivity we have to stop.
Please help stop the spread of toxic positivity by allowing all feelings in yourself, refusing to pathologize either stress or happiness, and sitting in them with those you care about. Please also remember that it is completely appropriate, understandable, and valid to be afraid, “negative,” and anxiety-ridden right now.
We lack not only a world that works for everyone but a recognized leadership that wants to create one. But those of us gaslighted by psychiatry with diagnoses of “mental illness” and those who believed society when it said “hard work pays off” and are working as hard as they can simply to survive are the real leaders.
- Patel, Raj and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. University of California Press: 2017. Pg. 145. ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.