Last week it snowed. And not just a couple centimetres. We’re talking enough snow to make walking a block an exhausting hike. I noticed my anxiety was higher than normal that day, and quickly realized it was because the weather was forcing me to stay home. To stay home meant less distractions. I tried to busy myself with work but by late afternoon, I could feel fear creeping in when I came up against moments of idleness.
What was I so afraid of? Being left with my own thoughts. Because sometimes, often times, my thoughts are negative, and I don’t like the way my inner critic makes me feel. Maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid of myself if we didn’t live in such a perfectionistic culture.
The dominant narrative right now is that we should be confident and feel good, not only in our roles—at work; as parents, partners and friends—but in our thoughts. We’re living in the era of self-care and self-love; what sociologists Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill call “confidence culture,” whereby people, particularly women, are expected to manifest their own happiness. The pandemic has only made it worse, as Orgad says, self-care and messages of positivity have been seen “in everything from exhortations to exercise, breathe deeply, and sleep better; to the promotion of ‘uplifting’ tunes, ‘comfort’ food, and feel-good TV.”
Last week I interviewed Lindsay and Emily Stetzer, two sisters with OCD and anxiety who are so fed up with toxic positivity that they created bracelets with phrases that encourage people to sit with their negative emotions. “We’re constantly told to put on a happy face and hide our emotions, that’s super unhealthy,” Emily tells me. “Before I went to therapy, I didn’t know trying to think happy thoughts wasn’t the way to overcome anxiety.” It was only when she started riding the waves of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, that she felt more in control of her OCD.
At the same time that positivity is pushed on us, we’re never had better awareness around mental health issues. You would think this is a good thing, but I worry the de-stigmatization of mental health, combined with the body positivity movement, tricks us into thinking we’ll feel confident and accepted when we present our flawed selves to the world. Instead, we end up feeling worse when we have a negative or self-critical thought. Women end up judging themselves if they don’t 100% love their bodies all the time; doubting their commitment to feminism; to being anti-fat-phobic.
Even worse than the idea that we’re supposed to be confident and comfortable in our skin, is the ideology that we can manifest our own happiness. As Emily Stetzer tells me this week, manifesting only makes us vulnerable to disappointment, “you’re not preparing yourself to deal with different outcomes, no one has control over the future,” she says.
Believing we are the masters of our own fate leaves no one to blame but ourselves when we don’t get what we “put out into the universe.” Jameela Jamil describes manifesting as the height of privilege and victim-shaming, “the idea that you can think your way out of extreme crisis, means that the people who are living in extreme crisis, that it’s somehow their fault.”
What affects our future more than our minds are the systems within which we live. As Kate Bowler, author of No Cure For Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), writes, “Another great lie is, ‘Everything you need is already inside of you.’ Most of what you need is outside of you. It’s structural justice and a community that holds you, and coming to terms with your own limitations and frailties.”
Rather than challenge the structural conditions that affect us, we’re told to turn inward, to cultivate self-love and be kind to ourselves. While encouragement to feel good is well-intentioned, it only makes us feel more shame when those negative thoughts inevitably turn up. I wonder if I wouldn’t be so afraid to be left with my own thoughts if the negative ones didn’t hold a negative label; if I could reframe the uncomfortable emotions as the good stuff—isn’t that where the real magic lies? For life’s greatest lessons and growth often comes from the difficult experiences, rather than the good ones.
Perhaps I would feel less anxious if instead of positivity, I aimed for neutrality: for being at ease with myself. As Deepika Chopra says in her interview with Jameela Jamil, “we can’t go from not liking how we look to thinking we’re beautiful, that’s not how the brain works.”
I might reach 80 and still not feel 100% confident. And life is not always kind to us, no matter how positive we are. Rather than build a vision board of my “best self” or expect I’ll “feel good” after watching a comforting TV show or taking a hot bath, I might feel better by surrendering to the idea that I control very little; by releasing myself from the pressure to harness my thoughts. Because hustling to suppress my inner negative voice only creates a false illusion of agency, realistically the uncomfortable thoughts will always find a way to come out.
Instead of the relentless cycle of working hard to quiet my thoughts then using “self-care” to numb them, this week I’m working on listening to my body and my mind; welcoming the whole range of thoughts and emotions that come up without labelling them, no matter how uncomfortable they make me feel.
This past monday an online gathering, hosted by beauty brands Tower 28 and Cocokind with actress Olivia Munn and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) to raise awareness about AAPI representation, was zoom bombed with racially-charged content.
“During the event, Priscilla Tsai shared a statistic that 78% of AAPI women have been affected by anti-Asian racism at some point in their life,” Tower 28 founder Amy Liu told me over email. “Now, sadly 100% of the attendees at the event have experienced a racially fuelled attack and were made to feel unsafe.”
A president who refers to COVID-19 as the “kung-flu virus” may be out of office, but the anti-Asian hate continues to rise. Statistics from LA and NYC report an increase in hate crimes in 2021 compared to 2020. A couple weeks ago, Michelle Alyssa Go was murdered by being shoved in front of a subway at Times Square station. When will it stop?
I’m inspired, at least, to see that the AAPI community refuses to be silenced. Actress Olivia Munn voiced her solidarity on Instagram following the event, for which she received support from leading AAPI voices such as actress Mindy Kaling and Top Chef winner Melissa King. Tower 28 and Cocokind are also teaming up on a limited edition Lunar New Year Kit where $5 from each purchase is donated to NAPAWF.
When Emily Stetzer went searching for jewellery with affirmations to help her manage her OCD and anxiety, all she could find were overly positive phrases like “don’t worry be happy.” They were the opposite of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) lessons she learned from her therapist, which encouraged her to sit with the negative emotions.
Emily and her sister Lindsay, who also lives with OCD, were inspired to create their own bracelet line—Presently—with affirmations taken from CBT. They’ve developed eight phrases for the most common anxieties they think people experience—like uncertainty about the future, for which they came up with “embrace uncertainty”—in a variety of chain styles at an affordable price.
The sisters are using Presently to encourage conversation about mental health both for people who live with conditions and those who might not understand them. “Instead of saying ‘cheer up’ or ‘you could have it worse,’ we want to make it more normal to say ‘it’s okay that you’re anxious, sit with those feelings and try to come back to the present,’” says Emily. Five dollars from each purchase goes to mental health non-profits too.
Ultimately, they hope Presently will contribute to the de-stigmatization of mental health. “We’re taught about how ever other body part works but we’re not taught the complexities of the mind,” says Lindsay. Her sister adds, “We check up on our bodies, so why don’t we check up on our minds?”
💁♀️ From pressure on mom’s to body positivity to voluntourism—we’re living in the era of the confidence cult.
“The whole industry of, for instance, voluntourism is marketed as a good cause to help the ‘faraway other,’ but it’s never separate from investing in your own self.” -Shani Orgad.
🙏 Has productivity culture replaced religion?
“We are believers in the gospel of hustle, the gospel of efficiency and the gospel of time management. We are convinced that we need to just discipline ourselves into better routines.” - Kate Bowler.
🛋 The case for being lazy.
“Working to the point of self-harm to build the boss’s wealth is still lauded as a “good work ethic” in America, and the word “lazy” is still connected to racism and injustice. It’s poor, unhoused, young, Black, brown, mentally ill, fat and chronically sick people who are most often accused of sloth.” -Elliot Kukla.
📚 The rise of the litfluencer, Bookstagram and BookTok.
📱 And what our TikTok feeds say about us.
😴 Revenge bedtime procrastination explained.
“Most of the activities performed while revenge procrastinating don’t really compensate for the exhaustion they cause. They might feel essential in the moment, but they’re really a double fuck you: they kinda suck in the moment, and they really suck in the cascading after-effects.” - Anne Helen Peterson.
🛏 I’m finally getting to bed early but I still appreciate insomnia.
In this episode of IWeigh, Jameela Jamil and Deepika Chopra examine what we lose when we’re overly positive. Chopra highlights how the times in our lives we remember most vividly are not the days where everything went right, but the days when things went wrong. She makes the case for making mistakes because from them we gain lessons and emotional growth.
Chopra encourages us to welcome the uncomfortable thoughts, and says optimism is defined not by positivity, but by resiliency and curiosity. She also gets into her troubles with fertility and what she’s learned from her surrogacy.
“We’re trying to live our lives pressured by bumper stickers. If there’s one phrase that makes my skin crawl, it’s ‘good vibes only.’ What people don’t know is that when you say that it’s causing shame. We were built to experience the full range of human emotions, not to experience the ‘good vibes only.’” - Deepika Chopra.