If I sold you a shiny, sugar-coated pill that I called “positivity,” would you swallow it without considering the risks? Would you ignore the fine print about side effects and dangers — just because the name “positivity” makes it sound like it must be a good thing? Or would you check what is actually in this pill and make sure there is solid evidence that these ingredients are both effective and safe?
Much of what is being labeled “positivity” — such as trying to make yourself think positive thoughts and look happy when you’re not — is widely accepted by the public as an indisputably good thing when it isn’t. These things may help some people some of the time, but for many other people they are quite harmful. And in fact, the people most likely to be harmed by forced “positivity” are the ones who are most at risk to suffer from feeling bad about themselves and their lives.
Yes, it makes sense to try to act with more compassion and respect for both yourself and others. And to remind yourself to notice the good parts of things along with the bad parts. But the package known as “positivity” contains only a little of this, and a lot of other added ingredients, including forced smiling, feeling as if there is something wrong with you if you don’t always have optimistic/confident thoughts, and pressure to compete with others over who looks more positive.
When you say that a goal of yours is to “be positive,” or when you use “positivity” as a hashtag, ask yourself what the heck you really mean to say. If what you mean by “being positive” is really more a matter of something like “being kind,” (or less judgmental, or less of a perfectionist, or less rigid in your thinking, etc.) why not just say that? Or are you actually wanting to provide free advertising for quackery being sold to help people compete in a potentially deadly race to nowhere?
I’m seeing a lot of stuff from mental health awareness groups about “High functioning depression,” “High functioning anxiety,” “High functioning ADHD” and you name it. Obviously, just because a person’s work/school performance or social media profile looks alright doesn’t mean they can’t also have a psychiatric diagnosis. But there are far better ways to get this idea across to to the public than by dividing people using made-up labels like “high functioning” that ultimately only worsen confusion and stigma.
There are no separate diagnoses specifying high-functioning vs. low-functioning depression, just like there aren’t separate types of depression for right- vs. left-handed or short vs. tall people. There are just infinitely many different variations of major depressive disorder for the infinitely many people who have it. There will never be a diagnostic label that captures how your specific combination of symptoms and identity and life all intersect — nor should there be, because that is not what these labels are for.
But adding the words “high-functioning” to a person’s diagnosis is not just unnecessary, it is harmful, because it increases stigma for everyone else. For example, by saying you have “high functioning depression” you’re making sure to specify that you’re not a loser like a stereotypical depressed person, thereby removing any positive effect (on stigma) that publicly proclaiming your diagnosis might have had. It is essentially an attempt to boost your own social appeal by distinguishing yourself from others who are less fortunate. It also functions to buy into and support negative stereotypes. (I wouldn’t refer to myself as having “high functioning depression” any sooner than I’d call myself a “female scientist.”)
I’m afraid that this seems to be part of a trend among young stigma fighters to embrace diagnostic labels while still being unable to accept that mental illness necessarily entails struggling/suffering, and while still holding very negative attitudes towards people with mental illness who don’t meet their standards for being sufficiently successful (attractive, happy-looking, and so on). But it doesn’t do much good to de-stigmatize diagnostic labels while stigmatizing the real experience of people who live with those diagnoses, many of whom do not have picture-perfect lives.
For more on this topic, see this recent writing by Sam Dylan Finch and M. Slade.
Sincerity might be both my greatest strength and deepest flaw. My concern with what lies beneath the surface is an aspiration, a compulsion, a phobia, a paranoia. I envy people who don’t care about being sincere, because they’ve got a lot more options. But I’m trapped in being me and can’t do anything about it.
The college that I work for is starting to describe its mission in terms of something like preparing future leaders for a diverse and fast-changing world. I understand that this statement is primarily designed to appeal to tuition-paying parents who might like to imagine their kid as a future leader, and that it won’t necessarily change what it is actually like to be a professor or a student at the college. Nevertheless, this advertising campaign troubles me in ways that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with anyone at work.
My students are human beings with a wide range of strengths, which may or may not include the desire or potential to be a leader. Do we no longer think it is valuable, as an institution or as a society, for those without traditional leadership qualities to also obtain a college education consistent with the paths they wish to take in their lives? While it is great that my institution is highlighting diversity in its talking points, the message I hear is that all kinds of people will be welcomed on campus as long as they all have the same dominant, top-of-the-corporate-ladder personality. We don’t all have to be privileged, but we all have to successfully act the part.
I am not a “leader,” and I don’t apologize for that. The world wouldn’t work if everyone needed to be a leader. (Please don’t tell me that maybe I’m a “quiet leader,” or any similarly patronizing title for non-leaders that the more powerful folks let us use when it is convenient for them to let us pass.) Traditional leadership qualities were never a requirement of the job I was hired to do, and they shouldn’t become a requirement just to make classes more appealing to students who value power and charisma over all else. Leadership qualities also shouldn’t become a requirement for students in most classes. Many people are quiet, modest, and/or anxious for one reason or another, and we have plenty to contribute to a diverse and fast-changing world, if that world will include us.
It is really sad that many young people feel they have to live like stars or politicians, in the heat of a social media spotlight and striving to be so bubbly that they’re about to pop. But let’s not pretend that this phenomenon is anything other than a larger-scale, higher-tech, expression of old-fashioned adolescent peer pressure, that strengthens the people on top of the social hierarchy at the expense of those who look or think or behave differently from the mainstream ideal. That some educators and parents are buying into and encouraging this cruel youth popularity contest — because they want to appeal to young people and are desperate not to have the kids think they look ‘uncool’ — is both pathetic and disgraceful. College should help students envision meaningful lives that suit their own personalities, not provide more buzzwords to justify senseless competition and conformity.
I was recently asked what advice I would give new college students, and it is this: Focus on doing things, not on whether you feel or look confident doing them.
Contrary to popular belief, confidence is NOT the essential first step to being successful or happy. (Confidence may be correlated with success and happiness but that doesn’t mean it causes them.) Moreover, feeling a need to make everything look easy is probably the biggest thing holding today’s college students back! Struggle IS real. Anyone pretending to have accomplished everything without struggling is not real.
Instead of trying to project confidence, keep challenging yourself to learn to do difficult things, ask for assistance when needed, and persevere with struggling until it gets better. The experiences and skills you’ll get in the process will make you feel more confident eventually — and they’ll be worth so much more than a fake smile.
It has been a while since I posted about dealing with my mushroom phobia but I’m proud to report that I have continued to make progress I never would have imagined possible before last year. Every time I go to the grocery store I deliberately touch or pick up some of the largest whole mushrooms they have. The first time I grasped a large white one I was surprised by how much it reminded me of the kind of squeeze toy you might give a dog or a baby. They’re rubbery fuckers, I thought, and I wasn’t scared. When I see little ones in the lawn I sometimes dare myself to step on them, or to go walking in the grass with my eyes closed (to stop myself from focusing on where the mushrooms are). Though I don’t like doing these things I like being able to prove to myself that I can do them without freaking out. Eventually I’ll need to challenge myself to walk among larger mushrooms since I imagine that might still be difficult for me.
The progress that I’ve made so far has allowed me to do gardening, spend time in my yard, and even take a walk in the woods — activities that for decades I only did when forced to and with terrible panic/dread. Though I still feel very tense being out in nature it feels like something I could eventually enjoy. As my fear becomes smaller the rest of my world is getting larger, and I’m going to go there.
I started out by brushing my feet among them, stepping on some of them, and knocking some over. This made me anxious, but I was OK. I went inside for 10 minutes and then went back out there to step among them some more. This time I decided to pull one out of the ground and felt a little creeped-out by the slight resistance it gave. But I held it in both hands and turned it over, feeling the whole thing — which was mushy and gross – but I was OK. While washing my hands afterwards I started sobbing, but I think this was only partly from fear and mostly from relief. I went out there one more time so my husband could take pictures of this accomplishment… and I’m still OK.
I’m going to need to keep reinforcing this new learning experience to keep my life-long fear and avoidance of mushrooms from returning, but making this first contact today is a really big deal. (I realize this may not look like big deal to you, but take my word for it. It is.)
This is the informative article by Joseph LeDoux on exposure therapy that inspired me to do this today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/i-got-mind-tell-you/201508/psychotherapy-learning-expereince
Here are the links to read more about my mushroom phobia: