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!

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Washington, D.C. with connections to many places, including Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Georgia. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. My deepest commitments are to equity and justice. These commitments lead me to write about intersectional identities, embodiment, and emotional literacies, among other matters. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

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