Affirmations, at least when used along the intersections of pop psychology and social media, are statements one thinks or says out loud, sometimes repeatedly, in the hopes of manifesting positive realities. For example: This story will not flop.
On Instagram, there are many affirmation accounts that promote gratitude, motivation, and self-love. Some have hundreds of thousands of followers, and post messages along the lines of “My skin is beautiful and I earn enough money,” “I enjoy the Monday Craze,” and “The best artists have the least Soundcloud followers.”
One account, however, stands out.
Like its name suggests, @disappointingaffirmations, which already has over 180,000 followers despite being just four months old, posts statements that are not like other affirmations. Instead of overtly positive, rainbows-and-butterflies, everything-is-going-to-be-ok mantras, the account posts seemingly brutal, slightly defeated, and even jarring dejections.
But don’t get it twisted—the account isn’t trying to bring you down. On the contrary, it’s trying to depict struggles with mental health in a raw, real, and refreshing way.
“When someone cries, the first thing people think to say is ‘don’t cry,’ you know? Like ‘hide those emotions,’” Dave Tarnowski, the 44-year old New York-based long-time-meme-maker behind the account, told VICE. Tarnowski was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, although he thinks he’s been struggling with both since his teens. He also runs the meme accounts @nickcaveandthebadmemes and @sadpeaks.
Tarnowski said that having to contain negative or difficult emotions because of the idea that nobody wants to be around people who are sad or upset is more tiring than helpful. Many of the “disappointing affirmations” are based on the real but unpopular thoughts people have but might not dare share, let alone on an Instagram with a picture of a blue sky.
“If I can go back and do it again, I would just fuck up my life in a different way” was the first disappointing affirmation Tarnowski wrote, though he originally posted it as a story on @nickcaveandthebadmemes. The story got a good reaction from Tarnowski’s followers, so he leaned into it and started @disappointingaffirmations shortly after.
Since then, he’s posted statements like “Have a panic attack. You’ve earned it;” “Don’t be afraid to try new things. Like lowering your expectations;” and “You matter. Just not that much.”
Some might read these and take offense. Certain Instagram users pointed out that a panic attack is not exactly something to laugh about. But Tarnowski, who suffers from panic attacks himself, is neither telling anyone to induce a panic attack, nor that panic attacks are funny. He’s letting people in on the sometimes absurd things that come out of many people’s mouths or minds, and showing them that it might not be all bad to find some humor in them.
For him, many of the disappointing affirmations show those who might not understand what it’s like to struggle with mental health how ludicrous some of the things they say can be—like telling someone to not cry when they are, in fact, already crying.
“People have feelings. We all have feelings and we shouldn’t have to pretend otherwise. I guess that’s part of the whole ‘positive vibes only’ kind of thing that I really can’t stand,” Tarnowski said.
The Instagram account also shines an unapologetic light on what some consider unwanted or “intrusive” thoughts, which many people who struggle with mental health find themselves thinking, despite, well, not wanting to.
“A lot of people don’t want mental illness touched upon in any sort of funny way. I mean, obviously, it’s not a funny thing. To be mentally ill is not funny,” said Tarnowski. “But that being said, for somebody who goes through these things to make light of it, it sort of takes a little of the power away from it. It takes a little bit of the darkness away from it.”
“To be mentally ill is not funny. But that being said, for somebody who goes through these things to make light of it, it sort of takes a little of the power away from it. It takes a little bit of the darkness away from it.”
In a phrase that runs the risk of sounding exactly like the positive affirmations people are used to, Tarnowski summed up how approaching mental health with humor might help: “Making light is shining light.” In other words, humor is a good tool to use in order to talk about things that don’t usually get talked about.
Talking about mental health is as important for Tarnowski as it is to the next guy. The difference is that Tarnowski wants people to be a little more open and honest about the realities of the struggle. He pointed to how even Buddha said that life is characterized by suffering.
“You know, not everything is fucking sunshine and rainbows,” said Tarnowski. “Sometimes, life is shit.”
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