Affirmations vs toxic positivity and what it's really all about.

I have a problem with the people who have a problem with affirmations and positive mindset practices. I think the critics have no idea what they're talking about. And I believe that the number of people who truly spread "toxic positivity" (whatever that is) are very, very few. Frankly, I don't think I've ever met one.

Positive affirmations are a radical act. If you walk around most of the time thinking you are unworthy, imperfect, unattractive, incapable, or unlikable, then you fit right into the status quo. If you choose to consider the notion that you are worthy, perfect, gorgeous, and you are loved then that is a radical act.


What I think is happening is that critics are having a knee-jerk reaction to what they perceive is going on, namely self-delusion and self-indulgence. I doubt these individuals have inquired deeply as to what is behind the practice of affirmations and positivity mindset practices for people.


The notion of "toxic positivity" is a myth. It's an insult meant to devalue the vulnerable and humble efforts of individuals to look deeply within themselves. Practices that are far from being self-indulgent or self-delusional. In fact, they are practices that require mindfulness, an acknowledgement of truth, an acceptance of brokenness, and an effort to change. They take time and patience to cultivate. They are not for the weak!


It's easy to criticize someone who is open about their shortcomings. It's a cheap shot. It's lazy and unkind. And it implies that this dichotomy isn't true: we are all simultaneously whole and worthy and, at the same time, we are all flawed in bringing that wholeness to fruit.


In its most literal sense, an affirmation is a head nod. It's an action acknowledging a reality. It can be neutral, negative, or positive. The majority of us walk around with negative affirmations in our heads most days. Positive affirmations are an effort to carve out a space for possibility; to push back the noise of all the negativity that isn't serving us, and consider an alternative.


You can't cure depression by sitting and breathing deeply. But that is where you can start. That is where we should all begin: sitting on the ground, with no music or meditation podcast in our ears, and just listening to our breath; just following the trail of our thoughts; daring to listen to our hearts' yearning without distraction.


Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. He wrote,


"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."

Affirmations are a path to human freedom. To anyone who has felt deflated by people in your life who belittle your efforts to change and grow: you are not alone. It's happened to me often and it always results in doubt being cast over my tentative efforts.


We can learn so much from great minds like Frankl: no one can take your choice away. It's up to each of us how we respond to any given situation. If someone is always tearing you down, you get to choose how you respond to their actions.


The next time you feel your efforts are being subverted, whether by yourself or another, recall Viktor Frankl. When all hope seemed lost, when the inertia of human cruelty seemed poised to consume his entire existence, he noticed a space. He later wrote,


"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

We can all be part of a human movement of people who believe in the human potential for goodness and change. The scale is always teetering between, on one side, the power and freedom in self-realization and, on the other side, the potent inertia of powerlessness.


Physics teaches us that inertia wants to keep things in its existing state. A scientific way to think about affirmations and positive mindset practices is to compare them to momentum. Each affirmation, each self-reflective moment when you pause to make a different choice, creates momentum to disrupt the trajectory your mind is on.


I will close with one of my personally favorite affirmations, written by Arundhati Roy. She is an Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things, which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the best-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. She is also a political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes.


Roy writes a lot about revolution, systems change, and spirituality. She, to me, embodies compassionate action in its most inspiring manifestation. She has witnessed much suffering and has put herself in harms way through her writings and at the same time, her writings include so much music, poetry, and softness.


Whenever I need a nudge to get quiet and listen to my heartbeat instead of being carried along by the negative inertia all around and inside me, I repeat this quote:


"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
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