Against the Tyranny of Positivity

On this day of the lunar eclipse in Aquarius, may we allow ourselves to feel.

To feel whatever comes up.
To feel deeply, expansively, expressively.
To feel a fuller range of emotions than we’re typically taught is appropriate or agreeable or allowable to feel.

To grieve for Nia Wilson, for Markeis McGlockton, and for many people whose lives are deemed expendable.
To rage against white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression.
To push past easy, ready, and first emotions.
To resist “the tyranny of positivity” that limits the ability to name violence, wrongdoing, and injustice.

The question

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what psychologist Susan David calls “the tyranny of positivity,” or the over-valuing of positive emotions to the point of blocking the ability to feel sadness, anger, fear, regret, guilt, and other “negative” emotions. These emotions are needed to reckon with—to remember, resist, redress, reconcile—harms done in the world. Harms done to and also by us.

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity” when a colleague expressed concern about me writing on the trauma of graduate education, cautioning me against being “too negative” and suggesting that “writing needs to stay positive to attract readers.”

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity,” too, when responses to my writing on trauma included statements like these:

  • “Career counselors are some of the most positive people you’ll meet.”
  • “If you look for the good in graduate education, then you won’t feel the bad so much.”
  • “It’s better to invest in building one’s career than to linger over the challenges.”
  • “You did a great job with that piece: you kept it positive.”

Certainly I understand the power of “positive thinking” for leveraging potential, and I believe that a focus entirely on the wrong (the critique against) interrupts our ability to envision more just futures (the critique for). I even wrote “When Everything Is Horrible, Try Slowing Down and Noticing”—a piece about noticing beauty in rough conditions—in the same week as writing about trauma. So, truly, I’m trying to learn and live out a both/and approach that invites attention to pain and pleasure.

Yet, what I see happening here and through broader social expectations for positive emotion is a sort of spiritual bypassing tied to white supremacy. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and other interlocking forms of oppression need denial to operate. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression rely on the policing of emotion, the forgetting of and failure to address deep harms that nevertheless live in the body.

Moreover, policing and blocking of emotions limit healing, creative response, and humanity.

Policing and blocking of emotions contribute to the epistemic injustice of being told you don’t even know what you know, and you don’t even feel what you feel, and you don’t even have the right to know and feel what you truly know and feel. And it’s epistemic injustice that undergirds trauma in graduate education and in so many facets of life.

In contrast, it takes the strength of working with trauma, sitting with vulnerability, and feeling what comes up to counter the tyranny of positivity. It takes love, and it takes anger. It takes a much fuller spectrum of emotions that those deemed “respectable” or “civil.”

So, today, when the astrology is inviting us to break down and break through (as eclipses invite “shadow work”), may we allow ourselves to feel.

  • What emotional work is waiting to be done?
  • When and how are denial functioning?
  • What emotions are asking to be acknowledged and named?
  • How can being truer about our emotions allow us to be truer about harms—those done to us and by us?
  • What emotional realness is needed for the long haul toward justice?
  • How do we break from the tyranny of positivity?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” “5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice,” and “Naming Trauma as Trauma.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

The Pain and Pleasure of Moving

My cross-country move from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Washington, D.C. has stretched over weeks turned into months. From traveling to find an apartment to now unpacking boxes, I’ve upturned almost every aspect of life. In the past weeks, I’ve sold my furniture, driven hundreds of miles, lost and found items shipped through Amtrak, lived out of suitcases in a temporary residence, and now moved into the apartment-to-be-home (hopefully for some time to come).

This moving process has offered numerous life lessons. Among them are the importance of qualities like humility and humor and the beauty of loving relations that keep me laughing even when crying.

In the midst of these lessons, I’ve been noticing again the function of both/and thinking for preventing a single story or flat understanding of lived experience. The more I hold onto the framework of “yes … and …,” the more I am able to think creatively beyond the lies of internalized superiority and inferiority. Both/and thinking helps to prevent the traps of either-or, this-or-that, divide-and-conquer, and conquer-to-divide, which enable injustice.

In the case of my move, the traps are too clear: I readily focus on pain without noticing pleasure. Likewise, I share stories of pleasure without noting the pain. Truly, life is richly textured in dialectical tensions (seeming contractions) that, together, get closer to truth. Toward truth-telling, here are some of these tensions I’m recognizing now, while moving:

1. Stuff brings both pain and pleasure.
Despite downsizing significantly in recent years, I’m still amazed by the bulk of my possessions. I’ve found myself complaining: “How can we have this much stuff? I can’t possible carry another box.” Moments later, I’m unpacking and hugging Larry, the teddy bear who accompanied me to summer camp in my youth, and I’m delighted and grateful for keeping at least some impractical stuff. The speed with which I’m complaining and delighting over “stuff” is a sure sign that it’s both: both painful and pleasurable.

A grey teddy bear sits next to a cardboard box, which is full of books.

2. Habits are both hurtful and helpful.
Moving creates the conditions for reviewing routines and patterns of living. While it’s easy to abandon all habits (the good and the bad), it’s also possible to assess which work and which don’t. When something as simple as taking daily vitamins falls away, I’m noticing how my body responds. On the one hand, my belly begins churning, reminding me not to forget the heating pad and probiotics. On the other hand, adding back in vitamins one at a time allows me to figure out which hasn’t been sitting quite right and to create a new nutritional plan.

Similarly, a new neighborhood leads to discovering new foods, activities, relations, and embodied experiences. The move has me asking: Which habits are serving me now, and which are asking to be released? What do I want my days to be like? What habits are (mis)aligned with my commitments?

3. Emotional swings are both flattening and fun.
Dialectic tensions like pain and pleasure, hurting and helping also lead to emotional swings: from downtrodden to upbeat—from falling on the floor in exhaustion to frantically cleaning in bursts of energy. Such emotional swings remind me of the presence of sadness alongside joy, disgust alongside delight, effort alongside excitement. They remind me why emotional literacies help with valuing the full spectrum of emotions, which convey important information.

The move has me experiencing a wide range of emotions and really trying to recognize them as messengers: not blocking any emotions, but asking what each has to teach me. This process, I hope, will funnel back into decisions about which “stuff” and habits to keep and which to release.

As I continue unpacking, I hope these reflections highlight again the value of a both/and approach to life, activism, and more. And if you’re in or near or visiting DC, please know that I’d love to connect and build community, as I make a new home.

View from inside my new apartment of a window seat: two windows are framed with rose-colored curtains, a long grey cushion seat, two decorative pillows with prints of birds, and a green palm tree (indoor plant).


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Countering Resistance Fatigue with a Both/And Approach,” “In the Midst of Big Changes,” and “5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Naming Trauma as Trauma

As part of my research on epistemic injustice, I’ve been thinking about the power of naming: the power of having the linguistic resources to identify, describe, and call out varied experiences, especially experiences of injustice.

Systemic oppression works in a way that denies the ability to name experiences of wrongdoing. When experiences are named, they can be acknowledged and addressed. To me, this is part of the power of the word microaggressions: the word allows for acknowledgement of what too often goes unacknowledged. Similarly, phrases like sexual violence, rape culture, and #metoo do important work in raising awareness, mobilizing response, allowing for healing, and calling attention to what’s typically hidden.

This week Inside Higher Ed published my article on why it’s important to acknowledge and address the trauma of graduate education as part of career conversations:

Screenshot of “The Trauma of Graduate Education,” showing the orange Inside Higher Ed page logo and navigation toolbar at the top followed the title, by-line, and first three paragraphs of the article.

The Trauma of Graduate Education” shares insights from this research on epistemic injustice, relating how graduate writers (participants in my dissertation research from several years ago) described the need for therapy, counseling, and self-help. In interview after interview, I heard writers (many of whom were white women and women of color) describe harms inflicted through graduate school. Moreover, participants’ stories echoed my own experiences with graduate education, which tore down my confidence, contributed to internalized pain, and kicked off a healing process that’s now taking me away from higher education.

In the article, I describe why it’s important to name these experiences as trauma:

“Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.”

My call to name trauma must have struck a chord with readers. On the one hand, I’m experiencing a new round of graduate students (especially white women and folks of color) reaching out and saying, “Yes, me too!” On the other hand, I’m seeing comment after comment (from what I can tell, all by white men) complaining about my “over-sensitivity,” exaggeration, and misuse of the word trauma.

Alongside these various forms of gaslighting (another powerful word for naming injustice) is a familiar rhetorical move of saying that if the experience of graduate education is too traumatic, then folks should just leave. Here again, as in my dissertation research and my own lived experience, I see readers (folks engaged in academia) making the moves that feed into trauma: those of denial, dismissal, and disengagement.

Such interactional moves point to why we need an “unrestrained” definition of trauma. What registers as trauma to one person may not to another, but to deny the experience is to deny the person. Writing off the reality of trauma is linked literally to writing off the people who experience it. Hence, we see the perpetuation of violence—perpetuation of oppression, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and epistemic injustice—within and beyond higher education.

Though this violence is all-too-familiar, I am encouraged again by the power of speaking and writing UP. I am encouraged that together we can build the linguistic resources to name experiences of injustice, and together we can use the act of naming to mobilize.

Today, tomorrow, and going forward, I’m naming trauma as trauma. And I hope you’ll join me in naming experiences of injustice to acknowledge and address them. We’ll need a lot of creativity and visioning to keep building the words for naming what’s intended not to be named. But build together, we must.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence,” “A Barrage of Microaggressions,” and “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

When Everything Is Horrible, Try Slowing Down and Noticing

On a recent hike, I found myself complaining about the heat and mosquitoes. I was walking quickly, speeding up to get off the trail, and failing to notice my surroundings. It wasn’t until I took a break on the ground—literally sitting in the middle of the trail—that I noticed blooming mayapples underneath large leaves. All around me but out of sight when walking were flowers promising spring and the summer to come.

Image of the forest floor with brown leaves, green growth, and mayapples. The large mayapple leaves shield white flowers from the sun.
Large mayapple leaves shielding white flowers from the sun.

The more I slowed down and took breaks on the ground, the more I noticed the flowers and fungi there. The colorful, intricate, and delicate life seemed to be reminding me that there’s still beauty in the roughest of conditions, the hottest of days, and the most mosquito-y of times.

This hike happened when I’d been having conversations about the need to guard against resistance fatigue and to build resilience for the long road ahead. For me, time in the outdoors and along hiking trails offers new ways to understand the world and my role within it.

What I learned from these blooming mayapples (and the many plants I observed) is the importance of slowing down and noticing the fullness of life: the joy alongside the pain, the beauty alongside the ugliness, the visions for alongside the critiques against. In other words, I was reminded again of the need for a both/and approach to everyday living for justice.

When I’m hurting (or hot or being bitten), my tendency is to rush to get out of there: out of that place of discomfort or pain. Slowing down and noticing, however, allows me to tap into the generative and healing potential that comes with curiosity, meditation, and divination.

At this time when violence and wrongdoing are as frequent as bite after bite, I find myself sitting on the ground and looking for beauty around me. With that beauty bolstering me, I can notice better my emotions and embodied, conditioned responses. I can notice better how to interrupt that conditioning and to use my body, too.

When times are toughest (and everything feels horrible), may we look for reminders of joy and beauty and for those visions that keep us both grounded and standing TALL.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice,” “Choosing to Tread Another Path,” and “Countering Resistance Fatigue with a Both/And Approach.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!