Most of the time, I'm a positive person. It's my natural state. I have the mental capacity to see the good in all things, especially the most terrible of circumstances. I often comprehend the depths of despair that one can plunge while not allowing myself to fall into the abyss. I do this to understand myself & others, so I can show up in my relationships & be emotionally available to those who need it most. But my emotional volatility does not stem from sadness, but anger. I have this reactive tendency that pours out in inappropriate ways, mainly as a result of the intolerable things that we are subjected to as a society, which sometimes alienates me from my peers & something that I am working on improving. However, I've made a pact with myself to not gloss over our grim reality with an unrealistic default mode of positivity. Being realistic is my default mode, positivity is just one setting, it is not on all the time.
We should not have to pretend everything is ok when it clearly isn't
Yes, ok, positivity can be a force for meaningful change & yes, there are those that are genuinely happy all the time. But when does positivity become toxic? It's not just about perspective; anyone can see through rose coloured glasses & rationalise things to make life more bearable, but the consistent suppression of negative emotions can actually make us feel worse in the long run, and there is scientific research available to highlight some uncomfortable truths.
acceptance, rather than avoidance
I've been guilty at times for telling people to just be grateful for what they have without realising how that may invalidate their feelings of anxiety, fear or sadness. Essentially, when we tell someone experiencing adversity to 'just get on with it', we quell their feelings & render their very real experience of the world meaningless by suggesting they can choose to feel good & stop wasting so much time feeling bad. But what are the consequences of this emotional suppression? When we constrain our emotional response to a negative experience to save face, we may internalise the feelings attached to that experience & are less likely to adapt to transient emotions as they arise, further separating us from our ability to access coping mechanisms for life's endless woes. Why do we work so hard to subdue our negative emotional experiences? Is this obsession with being perceived as happy a by-product of a heavily-sedated-quick-fix culture? Why must we try so hard to feel good all the time, especially when we face real life adversity? If we say everything is fine, when it isn't, we shut out the possibility for further enquiry that may help alleviate the issue in a meaningful, healthy way. It comes from a place of fear, not of the unknown, but of how things actually are. We must not forget that we are complex, spiritual, emotional, physical & metaphysical beings under enormous amounts of stress from our environment, which is currently a floating rock hurtling through space. Things go wrong. We need to learn how to acknowledge the suffering for what it is & speak openly about our distress without shrouding it in a veil of pretty quotes or numbing ourselves with distractions & harmful forms of self-soothing.
So how do we deal with toxic positivity?
1. Acknowledge how you feel, it's OK not to be OK
Avoid ignoring or stuffing your emotions & FEEL them, good & bad. Talk or write about how you feel. A brain imaging study at UCLA showed that putting feelings into words reduces the intensity of emotions such as sadness, anger, & pain. If things become overwhelming, give yourself permission to rest, free of guilt.
2. Listen & validate how others feel, respect boundaries
Everyone feels & perceives things differently, so it's important to acknowledge that others may not cope with things the same way you do. It's best to support rather than offer advice & respect personal boundaries, including your own.
3. Healthy positivity acknowledges authentic emotions
Feelings aren't mutually exclusive. You can grapple with two opposing concepts at the same time. In other words, you can feel sad about losing a partner but excited to meet new people in the future.
4. Be realistic
If you want to feel productive, start with small, actionable steps.
“During times of emotional distress, do not engage in brand-new tasks that you think will make you feel better,” Zuckerman says. “Rather, expand on things you are already good at and familiar with. Stick with what you know until you feel better.”
For example, she says, if you love doing yoga, try a different type of yoga instead of a completely new exercise.
“Doing things to make you feel better that are extensions of your existing behavioral repertoire requires less cognitive effort and protects the person from setting, and ultimately not meeting, unrealistic expectations,” Zuckerman says.
5. Recognise toxic positivity language, disengage
Usually, these messages are overly simple: “Positive vibes only,” “Choose happiness,” etc.
Remember, what makes positivity toxic is that it dismisses other genuine emotions, Long explains: “If the message is that positivity is the only or best way to go, that’s problematic.”
You don’t have to engage with toxic positivity.
6. Be wary of social media
“People put their best filtered foot forward on social media,” Zuckerman explains. “Rarely do people post their faults, flaws, or highlight their poor decision making. As a result, social media gives off the impression that everyone is handling hard times ‘better than you,’ [and] this fosters a sense of loneliness, shame, and embarrassment.”
In particular, she adds, watch out for social media influencers, because many promote toxic positivity by only posting their best looks, workouts, and what appears to be perfect lives.
“Recognizing that you are not alone in your worries and/or lack of energy or motivation can mitigate the effects of unrealistic expectations promoted on social media, news feeds, and blogs,”
~ I do not settle for inauthentic happiness.
~ I will not deny the experience I am having nor the experience of others for the sake of being viewed as positive & happy.
Rip the bandaid off & let the wounds heal... allow yourself to FEEL~