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Pushing back at a culture of relentless ‘toxic positivity’

Updated:2024-05-13 15:02    Views:90
Dave Tarnowski's new book pairs photos he’s taken of serene landscapes with some of his viral Instagram posts as well as new some sayings. Dave Tarnowski's new book pairs photos he’s taken of serene landscapes with some of his viral Instagram posts as well as new some sayings. Courtesy Chronicle Books

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CNN  — 

“Live, laugh, love.” “Good vibes only.” “Choose happiness.”

Whether you’re in a yoga studio or the doctor’s office waiting room or scrolling through social media posts, positive affirmations encouraging you to live your best life can be found almost everywhere.

But what if you don’t feel like it? For mental health advocate and author Dave Tarnowski, society’s penchant to push what he calls “toxic positivity” felt like brainwashing. Tarnowski turned that positivity on its head when he launched his Disappointing Affirmations Instagram account in July 2022. It went viral and now has more than 2 million followers.

"Disappointing Affirmations: Unfollow your dreams!" encourages readers to examine negative thoughts, not chase them away. "Disappointing Affirmations: Unfollow your dreams!" encourages readers to examine negative thoughts, not chase them away. Courtesy Chronicle Books

Tarnowski’s new book, “Disappointing Affirmations: Unfollow your dreams!” expands on his social media musings, pairing photos he’s taken of serene landscapes — waterfalls, dramatic coastlines, sunsets and the like — with some of his viral Instagram posts and new sayings.

Tarnowski said he hopes the sayings will resonate with anyone who bristles at relentless toxic positivity, explaining in his book that “negative thoughts should be examined, not chased away.” Those feelings need affirming, too, he said.

“You can do it! But you probably won’t,” “Stop overthinking. You are the only one who cares” and “It’s okay to have feelings. But do you need to have so many?”

Tarnowski, who said he has dealt with depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, found that channeling a mantra that it’s OK to not be OK helped him approach his struggles with a healing pragmatism he hopes can help others.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: You refer to these disappointing affirmations as “making light by shining light.” What do you mean by that?

Dave Tarnowski: I’m making light of the darkness by shining a light into it. I think I really started understanding my own darkness when I was officially diagnosed as bipolar. As I started reading up on the disorder, I saw myself everywhere.

Instagrammer and author Tarnowski admits to being "a total fatalist — always expecting the worst." Instagrammer and author Tarnowski admits to being "a total fatalist — always expecting the worst." Courtesy Chronicle Books

At that time, Disappointing Affirmations was still two years away, but I was making memes for some other pages I had been running for years that started taking on things like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, imposter syndrome, and so on. With (my) Disappointing Affirmations (Instagram account) I was able to step right up to the point and showcase different “negative” thoughts, old stories and worst-case scenarios — and laugh at them.

I’m a total fatalist — always expecting the worst. Even down to the tiniest thing, like, “Will the store be open yet? I bet it won’t. But I’m going to check anyway annnnnd of course it’s not open yet. Why did I even bother?”

They say, “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed,” and maybe that’s true for others, but I’ve found life to be very disappointing.

That’s not to say I haven’t felt joy, but it only lasts so long. No matter how good things are, I’m always waiting for them to go wrong.

CNN: How has being pragmatic about life been a useful tool for you in managing depression?

Tarnowski: I find that the trick with depression is to let it be itself. I know that may sound silly, but when I find myself suddenly in the “sh*it tunnel” of depression, as an old friend put it to me once, I just let it do its thing. Because in the past, when I’d get frustrated at being depressed, I’d feel powerless over it and hate myself.

GettyImages-1922498806.jpg Justin Paget/Digital Vision/Getty Images

I view it now as a part of myself, and I need to accept it just as I need to accept my manic side. I also need to give a huge shout-out to all of my therapists over the years. It was with their help that I was able to begin digging down deep and examining what’s inside. Plus, I’m on a good regimen of medications that help keep the darkness from being so deep and never-ending, mostly, and the anxiety/mania from getting too out of hand — again, mostly.

There’s a sort of radical self-acceptance that came to me over the past couple of years. And that’s actually the hidden story I tell with the 80 Disappointing Affirmations in the book — it goes from fear of not being good enough to accepting yourself exactly as you are. Even if that means accepting you’re never going to be good enough.

Vulnerability used to feel like weakness to me, but I know it’s a huge strength. I wouldn’t have been able to unlock the power of the things I thought were weaknesses without years of talking it through during therapy and accepting myself.

Happy woman wearing sweater hugging herself in bedroom Happy woman wearing sweater hugging herself in bedroom Westend61/Getty Images

CNN: What are some of the reactions you’ve had from your audience to your disappointing affirmations?

How to get help

Help is available if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters.In the US: Call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.Globally: The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide have contact information for crisis centers around the world.

Tarnowski: People have told me I’ve saved their lives — more than a few times. It’s both humbling and heartbreaking. I’m a staunch mental health advocate.

One of the things I’ve dealt with through a large part of my life was suicidal ideation. At many points, I came very, very close, and I’m very happy I did not. I’m even more happy I did not because I was able to reach these people.

As for who will like this book, I think it’s people like me — and also people not like me. They definitely have to have a dark sense of humor or just a sense of humor period.

What worried me when I first started writing these for the public and still worries me — I know there’s a segment of my audience that doesn’t understand nuance. When I say, “Don’t be sad. You’re making everyone uncomfortable,” they’re not understanding that comes from years of me having to pretend to be happy for everyone else.

9781797226668.in02.jpg Courtesy Chronicle Books

I don’t knock positive affirmations at all — I knock toxic positivity. Disappointing Affirmations aren’t just photonegatives of positive affirmations. They are steeped in stark realism and in many cases outright nihilism. I am not the most positive person, but I do know what doesn’t work for me — and that’s affirmations trying to brainwash me to believe things are different than they really are.

I know life can suck, and in so many ways. I want something that doesn’t make me feel bad for seeing things that way.

The people who get it and get the book, they might not know the exact story behind one of these disappointing affirmations, but they’re going to feel seen by it. And that’s one of the most important things to me.

I’m sort of being the person I wish had been there for me when I was a kid.

GettyImages-1488897301.jpg SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

CNN: Did you have a coping mechanism in childhood for depression?

Tarnowski: My main coping mechanism was writing. I always felt othered, especially after a harsh betrayal by a bunch of friends in junior high that shaped my life for many years to come. I felt othered, and I turned inwards and began writing a series of unfinished novels that mainly focused on characters who are “different” or “special” in ways that alienate them from their worlds.

I would suggest to the kids who don’t fit in that not fitting in isn’t all that bad. Focus instead on what you want to fit into your life, not the other way around. Find your “why” — your reason to live. As Nietzsche said, “If you know the why, you can live any how.”

Florida-based freelance journalist Terry Ward lives in Tampa and believes you only live once but doesn’t like being told to smile.







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