Most of my life, I’ve found it easier to critique rather than appreciate what is going well, so I personally find positivity and practicing gratitude to be incredibly important in providing balance in my life. However, I’ve also observed certain situations in which positivity can impede growth and progress.
When Positivity Gets in the Way of Authenticity
The last time I attended a student affairs conference, I was feeling rather low. I had just left a toxic work environment that left me grappling with anxiety, I wasn’t where I thought I “should” be in my career, and I was questioning if student affairs was truly my calling. Yet, here I was, surrounded by fellow student affairs colleagues, oozing student affairs love and positivity.
It only made me feel more alone and depressed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love student affairs. I believe in the work we do, and I know our work transforms students’ lives. Yet for me, when I was struggling, I found it difficult to show up authentically. Instead, I felt the pressure to present a positive impression to my colleagues, particularly at a conference where I’m expected to network and represent my institution at its best. Similarly, I’ve known people who are so committed to “positive thinking” that they are unable to be honest with themselves and others when they are struggling with difficult situations and darker emotions. I’ve gently reminded friends and students that when they acknowledge how they truly feel, they can process through their feelings and let go. But, when they attempt to ignore or cover their feelings with positivity, it only causes them more anguish and impedes their healing process.
Positivity and Difficult Dialogues
I’m a born and bred Californian, so when I went off to the Mid Atlantic region for graduate school, I experienced some intense culture shock. As someone who has devoted her career to social justice issues, I found it particularly difficult to have conversations about power and privilege while living in this area. There was an unspoken but pervasive cultural value that messaged, “it’s impolite to make others feel uncomfortable, therefore we don’t talk about negative things that make people feel uncomfortable.” The mere mention of race made certain people feel very uncomfortable, therefore we rarely talked about it.
I also noticed a cultural emphasis on being positive and presenting a pleasant face to others. It seemed that in this context, positivity was interpreted to mean to avoid anything discomforting or negative. This even extended to organizational development practices such as Appreciative Inquiry, which focuses on what’s going well and minimizes anything going wrong. I found this incredibly confusing, and more importantly, silencing. How are we supposed to move forward as a community when we only focus on what’s going well? How do we address inequities without having open and honest conversations about the ugly realities of -isms, how they pervade our everyday existence, and how we are all complicit in the system? Some realities are just are just downright ugly, and ignoring them for the sake of positivity doesn’t make them go away. If anything, it only perpetuates the systems and structures that allow the inequities to exist.
Positivity is an important tool that gives us hope, change our perspectives for the better, and can be incredibly empowering. However, it can also be limiting and/or damaging when it becomes the sole focus that does not allow room for the full range of human experiences to be processed and explored. Positivity is not a panacea for our problems. Rather, it is a skill and a tool that should be applied judiciously as the situation warrants.