It has probably been drilled into you a million times by now but I am going to say it again anyway for those at the back: Instagram isn’t real life.
With the rise of the recent ‘self-help’ culture, there has been a massive emphasis on focusing on the positive, quashing all negative emotions like the devils that they are and only surrounding yourself with positive people. And don’t get me started with ‘good vibes only‘.
But it’s not real. It’s a facade that harms us way more than an uncomfortable emotion like grief, sadness or anxiety ever could. When we shield ourselves with fake positivity, we become increasingly fragile to the world around us and suddenly the real negativity that lies around every corner has a bigger bite to it when it does strike.
I am a fan of internet memes. If you are too, you might be familiar with this one:
This is what I think of when I hear all of the fake positivity that is out there. It is the true art of deception that people fall for again and again. Everyone has fires that they need putting out but many of us would much prefer to close our eyes and tell ourselves that everything is fine. We tell ourselves that positive thoughts will fix things and make all of our problems go away.
As any human being over the age of 4 years old knows, life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and this way of thinking doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself. We all are going to experience or have experienced heartbreak, loss, sorrow, dread, anxiety, worry, anger and many more of those fun emotions to have. There’s no point hiding from them because they always find you one way or another and will hit you hard if you aren’t prepared.
The famous philosopher Alan Watts had an interesting take on this with something that he referred to as the ‘Backwards Law’.
The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.
After all, if you are always chasing the next big thing as you plod along the hedonic treadmill, you can never be happy. Positive experiences come and they go. Negative experiences come and they go. It is about embracing both as they enter your life.
An actually positive and happy person doesn’t feel the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is. Fake positivity has no place in a truly positive person’s life.
Negative emotions and thoughts act as a compass
Have you ever wondered why you are extremely nervous around some things and not at all around others? Usually, it is the case that we feel the strongest negative emotions when something really needs to changed or acted on. As a result, blocking out negativity when it can guide us to where we truly need to grow in life makes absolutely no sense.
In Vanessa Smith Bennett’s article on the same topic, she reiterates the words of Buddhist teacher, author and nun Pema Chödrön:
Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear… are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They’re like messengers that tell us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.
Running from negative emotions is like finding the ‘X’ on a treasure map and running in the other direction. Yes, the treasure is being guarded by a fearsome dragon, but no worthwhile treasure lies anywhere else.
If you know anyone that always runs from stress, things they don’t want to do or responsibility, they probably aren’t someone that you look up to in your life. They are also probably more fragile and vulnerable to anything else that life throws at them because their walls have been built so high but on soft, shallow ground.
As Mark Manson highlights in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:
Life is suffering – the rich suffer because of their riches. The poor suffer because of their poverty. People without a family suffer because they have no family. People with a family suffer because of their family. People who pursue worldly pleasures suffer because of their worldly pleasures. People who abstain from worldly pleasures suffer because of their abstention. Not all suffering is equal, but we all must suffer.
Suffering and other negative emotions are an unavoidable part of life. You may as well choose your suffering and use your negative emotions as a compass to a better life.
Negative emotions and thoughts don’t need meaning
Whilst strong negative emotions can sometimes help guide you in a certain direction, quite often they don’t mean anything at all.
Just as the heart pumps blood around your body all of the time without you realising, your brain does the same thing with thoughts – usually without you realising too. You will know this feeling if you have ever come off a long shift at work and think ‘what on earth did I think about for all of those hours?’. The answer probably isn’t nothing, but incessant, meaningless thoughts. That’s just what the brain does.
When the mind goes about creating thoughts and feelings in the body, it doesn’t really care if they are positive or negative – they’re just random.
If you sit with yourself for a couple of minutes, close your eyes and be mindful of whatever thoughts arise in your brain, you will notice this. A childhood memory might arise, then that delicious sandwich from yesterday, then that view you saw on holiday a few years ago, then that time you fell out with a friend.
The vast majority of the time our thoughts don’t mean a thing. What a relief! They’re just completely random neurons firing in our brains to create images, recall memories, create lines of words without much, if any, meaning attached to them.
Watch your next thought.
I mean it.
What did you think of? Why did that thought pop into your head and not your favourite David Bowie song or your shopping list for later on? Did you make yourself think that thought? Or did it just sort of…appear?
The same is true of our emotions and feelings. They can pop up out of nowhere without any significant meaning behind them. Thoughts are just thoughts. Emotions are just emotions. Feelings are just feelings. It is only when we start to create a narrative around them do they start to become something else and seriously impact our lives.
Realising that negative emotions and thoughts are very real but don’t have to mean anything is a liberating choice to make. It will also move you closer to true happiness and positivity than any Instagram quote ever will.
To wrap up
It takes a lot of courage to simply accept unpleasant thoughts and emotions as they are.
It’s hard, that’s why so many people don’t do it. Fake positivity is staying in bed on a cold, dark morning because it is so comfortable even though you have things to do. Embracing real positivity and real negativity is getting out of bed and living life to the full.
To achieve true equanimity, you need the yin and the yang. Don’t be fooled otherwise.