Good evening, friends and neighbors!
There’s something to be said for powering though issues, or “stiff-upper-lipping” it. One of my mantras when it comes to time management is “Freak out when you have time.” Definitely easier said than done, but being able to tolerate discomfort for a while DOES make one stronger- mentally, physically, and as a person.
That is a far cry from pretending that that discomfort and pain doesn’t exist though, or that you aren’t having trouble- OR that you can endure it forever.
Acknowledging that life can suck can help you… and pretending it doesn’t can hurt you. That’s toxic positivity… and in the kitchen, it can make a difficult life even harder.
What Is “Toxic Positivity?”
You know all those feel good posts and memes you see? They say stuff like:
“Say these affirmations every morning!”
“Remember to be grateful!”
“Every day is a blessing!”
“What’s the big deal,” you’re probably thinking right now. “So they’re cheerful! Ok, they can be a little cloying and sappy, but you’re just being a grump.”
You’d be right. They are just being cheerful, and I am a bit of skeptic. I still don’t really dig the whole “vision board” shtick, and I already meditate daily. This kind of positivity becomes toxic when:
- It’s heralded as the solution to all your problems. You can’t simply “raise your frequency” and think your way to a perfect life. Eventually, you need to strap up and enter the ring.
- It urges you to ignore your negative emotions, or “focus on the positive.” Negative emotions and feelings are part of you for a reason- they are your gut instincts, and are as valid as anything.
- It becomes victim-blaming and/or guilt-tripping. “Your life doesn’t suck, you just keep focusing on the negative!” “Some people just want to be unhappy, I guess.” “Others have it worse than you, you know.” None of these things are helpful, and in fact they can gaslight you into distrusting those gut instincts you were born with.
- It discounts the existence of mental illness. All that “just drink water/go for a hike and leave your medications at home” is not just bullshit, it’s dangerous bullshit. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that I exercise more than most people. I eat healthier than most, get outside more than most, meditate almost daily, and there are days where I am still an anxious mess/ joyless wreck. Chemical imbalances can’t be cured with yoga and hugging trees. If they could, running shoes would be covered by insurance.
When you find yourself in a position where you feel like you need to force a smile, second-guess your own judgment, and feel guilty for being sad/angry… that’s not living a good life. That’s forcing yourself into a lie.
“Let’s See You Grit Those Teeth!”
I have had several coworkers and friends reach out to me with an excellent point:
“Well, yeah, that’s fair… but no one likes a complainer, Matt. Especially in the close quarters of a kitchen. A bitter complainer really brings down morale and can drag a whole team down.”
And… they’re right. Someone who is truly so miserable that they can’t help but share it with everyone around them IS a problem- and frankly, it’s in their benefit and that of the business for them to leave if that’s the case. There is a sharp difference between “I am miserable in this position” and “I am angry and bitter and just need to be heard.”
In the kitchen, toxic positivity becomes the softer, squishier face of the macho, scar-comparing culture that serves no one but egos. In a previous job, when I complained about perceived difficulties and issues in how the bakeshop was run, I was told:
“Listen, in my time here, I’ve seen people rise in this restaurant and I’ve seen people fall. The people who fall are always the ones who say ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’ and the ones who excel are the ones who say ‘I can.'”
I’m not going to point fingers here. I’m certain the statement was well-intentioned. Quotable positivity usually is- they are trying to cheer you on. Give that another look though, and here’s what it says- and what it said to me:
“If you’re having trouble, it’s because you are being negative and not trying. Cheer up and you’ll be fine.”
If I were not trying, that conversation would not have happened- I would have simply given up and quit. Instead, I sought out my superior for help. Toxic positivity still presents asking for help as a weakness. It blames people for trying to solve their problems instead of giving up.
All the cheerful thoughts, morning affirmations, and meditation in the world may have helped me approach work at that restaurant in a more relaxed manner- but it would have done nothing to make the needed decisions happen in management. Those things were utterly out of my hands.
There’s “grinning and bearing it…” and then there’s giving up on yourself being happy in the way you need to be. Know the difference.
“Embrace the Suck.”
I forget exactly where I heard that phrase first, but its inherent philosophy have motivated and helped me more than all the “positive thinking” and “affirmation” crap I’ve read ever as.
Just like in the last post where I talked about honoring and recognizing your emotions, “embracing the suck” means honoring and recognizing your environment. No rose-colored glasses or silver lining required- it means looking your situation in the eye and being able to say:
THIS SUCKS, AND I KNOW IT.
You honor and validate your emotions and recognize reality… but without hamstringing yourself from dealing with that situation in a productive manner.
In some cases, that’s all that’s needed. A bad day does not equal a bad week, a bad month, a bad year, a bad life. Embracing the suck means going “Yes, I’m unhappy right now, but I can deal with it for the time being.”
Once your immediate issues are managed- that crappy day is done, that frustrating project is finished- you can acknowledge and handle your issues better than you could if you just “focused on the positive” and tried to ignore them.
If your problem can’t be handled so easily, at the very least, “embracing the suck” means “this is uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I know from before and that I know I can handle.”
That does plenty more than “you can do it” and “believe in yourself” memes.
Miyamoto Musashi stated that “the way of the Samurai is the resolute acceptance of death.” Think of this as “resolute acceptance that life is going to suck sometimes.” By pretending that it doesn’t, you not only lie to yourself but gaslight yourself into distrusting your own gut instincts.
Musashi’s “resolute acceptance of death” means accepting the real possibility of failure, and thus freeing yourself of the fear of failing. “Embracing the suck” means accepting the reality of “you won’t be happy all the time”… and thus frees you from that expectation.
To Sum Up…
Look, life isn’t sunshine and rainbows, and if you pretend that’s 90 degrees in the dead of winter, all you’re going to get is hypothermia. There’s only so much- and so effectively- you can “look on the bright side.” In the best cases, this kind of advice is cliche. In the worst, it blames people for the horrendous crime of being unhappy.
No one wants to just be crabby all the time, and no one wants to be near/work with someone who is either. Constantly faking cheerfulness and mentally berating yourself into tamping down every negative emotion is no good either, and unhealthy in the long run.
Instead of berating yourself for reacting to a bad situation, you can improve your mood (if not eventually the situation) by “embracing the suck”- recognizing the reality and necessity of some negative experiences. Firmly locked in reality, you can begin to *deal* with that reality instead of haranguing yourself for it being “all in your attitude.”
It’s acknowledging and dealing with your problems, before they become too much to handle.
What Do You Think?
Does positivity culture grind your gears? Or do you feel like it actually works? Is all of this just in our minds anyway? SHOULD life look more like a “Lisa Frank” poster?
Drop your thoughts in the comments!