Toxic Positivity: It’s Okay Not To Feel Okay
“Don’t worry. Be happy.”
It’s a catchy tune but it can be lousy advice.
In the midst of a tough time, being told to ‘focus on the bright side’ can just make you feel worse.
Sometimes life is difficult. Disappointing. Hard. Frightening. Sad. Heartbreaking even.
Can good flow from situations that make us feel bad? Of course.
But to downplay, deny or dismiss those not-so-good feeling emotions denies the full human experience. As Dr Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled, “Life is difficult. Once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”
In mid-March, I felt disappointed when, after a year of planning, the tour for my new book was cancelled. In later March, I felt anxious when my husband was hospitalized with COVID-19 (he is now fully recovered.) In April, life felt surreal as we stayed at home to flatten the curve. May did too. Late May and early June brought a swirling mix of anger, disbelief and sadness as violence swept across American cities protesting the death of George Floyd. Then confusion, guilt and a dollop of shame… how best to respond to my own white privilege? All the while the death count kept mounting and any hopes this virus would ‘just go away’ fanned out.
Then more unrest. More uncertainty. More plans disrupted and life upended.
Let’s face it, sometimes, many times, being told to “focus on the bright side” just doesn’t cut it. And this comes from a die hard optimist.
I’m sure you’ve had your own times when the last thing you wanted hear was to “look for the silver lining” or some other saccharine platitude that sought to ‘positive-wash’ the unwanted reality you were wrestling with.
Perhaps you’re in the midst of such a time right now. Many are.
As I share in my latest podcast, in a culture that celebrates positivity, the overgeneralization of ‘think positive’ to all situations can be harmful as it denies the full human experience.
Enter toxic positivity.
So if you’ve been feeling bad about feeling bad, I encourage you to reframe how you view positivity. Not because having a positive mental outlook isn’t beneficial. It is. (And if you read my columns, you’ll know I’m all for looking for the opportunity in adversity).
Rather, when we try to hand pick which emotions we will feel and cut out those ‘feel-bad’ ones, we also cut ourselves off from the feel-great ones. In the process we confine ourselves to living only in the middle octave of life. Which, if we’re truly honest, is not really living at all.
So if you’ve had a tough week (or month, or year… many have!) and feel pressure to ‘put a smile on your dial’ when you feel anything but, I hope the advice to follow will help you avoid the scourge of toxic positivity and work through those not-so-fun feelings in ways that serve your highest good.
Feel all your feelings, all the way through
We humans aren’t wired to feel pain; we’re wired to avoid it. Yet the avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. As I wrote in You’ve Got This!, it is only by fully embracing our painful emotions – however vulnerable that makes us feel – that we can access our deepest source of strength.
You do that by leaning into, versus running from (minimizing, invalidating, drinking/eating down or distracting yourself from) your uncomfortable emotions.
Every emotion is inviting us to attend to something. So when uncomfortable emotions rise up, sit quietly and get really present to where those emotions are sitting in your body. Your chest? Your back or belly? Notice them. Label them. Is it disappointment hurt, anxiety, overwhelm, resentment, envy? As you do, ask yourself, what here needs my attention?
Research by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor found that fully feeling our feelings helps to loosen their grip. So too does labelling them and claiming them as emotions we are feeling but not who we are. For instance. I’m feeling really sad right now versus I am sad right now. See the difference? An emotion is something you feel. It’s not who you are.
On the flip side, when we deny or try to avoid uncomfortable emotions, they bury deeper where, left without any channel for expression, they fester until they eventually they express themselves in destructive ways. By lashing out, inflicting pain on others, and ourselves… or growing an ulcer. Or worse.
So if you’re wrestling with a really hard emotion right now, keep in mind that our problems do not arise because we have anger, fear or sadness. They arise because our anger or fear and sadness has us.
Avoiding difficult emotions makes us hostage to them. As such, allowing yourself to feel all your feelings, all the way through, is a profound act of self-liberation.
Embrace your humanity with self-compassion
Hand in hand with ‘feeling your feelings’ is not beating up on yourself for having them.
I’m guessing that you like to see yourself as an upbeat positive person. That’s great. Me too. So I know from personal experience that it can be quite confronting to your sense of identity when you feel anything but upbeat. But beating up on yourself not feeling upbeat only pulls you further down.
“Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish,” wrote Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, in her book Positivity.
Rather than trying to eliminate negativity we must work to cultivate the positive emotions. But you can’t do that if you’re beating up on yourself whenever you don’t feel on top of the world. So be kind to yourself and follow the advice that self-compassion expert Kristen Neff and “give yourself permission to be fully human.” (You can listen to my conversation with Kristen on my podcast ep. 12)
If you’re unsure how to do that, then just imagine what the most loving person you know would say to you right now, and say that to yourself. Out loud. I promise you, it helps.
Validate the struggle and emotions of others
Just as you need to practice self-compassion and feel your own feelings, so too you must rise above the impulse to alleviate – or “think-positive-wash” – the hard emotions others may be feelings. Rather, meet them where they are, however they are feeling – even if you think they are over-reacting. Three ways to do this are:
- Validate what they’re feeling by practicing ‘limbic resonance’, mirroring their feelings. E.g. I’m so sorry, this is hard stuff. I see how stressful this is for you. It’s totally understandable that you’re feeling this way.
- Let them know you’re there for them, and with them. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you and I’ve got your back. You’ll get through this; we’ll get through this.
- Affirm your belief in them and their future. You’ve got this. I know you’ll get through this. How can I help you?
Share your own truth, selectively
How are you, really?
While not everyone deserves the unfiltered truth of our lives, curating a fake emotional world cuts us off from the very people who could help us carry our burdens better. Wearing a smiley-face mask may provide the illusion of invulnerability, yet it ultimately puts us at greater risk of superficial friendships with counterfeit intimacy.
We build resilience through connection. Authentic connection. The maxim that “A burden shared is a burden halved” holds timeless truth.
Reaching out, asking for help, sharing your truth –we may fear this makes us look weak. In truth, it’s one of the bravest things we can ever do and that ultimately makes us all the stronger.
How are you, really?
It’s okay to not to be okay.
Confront painful realities, but retain hope. Always.
Being fully present to life’s harsh realities while having hope for a positive future are not mutually exclusive. We can honor our negative emotions without abandoning optimism. Indeed, research shows that however bad things feel now, they won’t feel this way forever.
“The cure for the pain is the pain,” wrote Rumi. So embrace those painful emotions as part and parcel of what’s required to fully savor your most joyful ones. Give them the space the deserve so they can do their work, and then, like dark clouds in a stormy sky, pass on over.
Those darker, harder, more painful emotions are just as essential to the full tapestry of our lives as the lighter ones. At the end of a difficult week like this one, the wisdom of Maya Angelous could not be more fitting:
“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
Living a full life requires living a brave life; confronting our deepest fears, not denying them. There is no place for toxic positivity in that space.