“Good vibes only”, “think happy thoughts”, “all smiles here”…
I’m sure you’ve heard these catchphrases, right? They’re used all the time on social media, and branded all over mugs, t-shirts and journals.
They’re well-intentioned phrases. But they can be harmful.
Such phrases disseminate what’s known as “toxic positivity.” The phrase toxic positivity refers to a positivity-only mentality taken on by a culture that pursues happiness to the detriment of all other emotions.
Toxic positivity latently rejects anything that may be viewed as negative or triggers negative emotions. Positivity is beneficial to body and mind, but the problem with toxic positivity culture is that it inadvertently shames those who can’t pull themselves out of the muck and look at “the bright side.”
Life can be heavy and painful. And now, with COVID-19 affecting our everyday lives, weight and pain is only heightened. And while the emotions life’s trials elicit aren’t pleasant or enjoyable, they’re important parts of our psyche.
Consequences of toxic positivity: shame and trauma
To force people to see a bright side of a situation when they can’t see one is to do them a disservice. COVID-19 (for example) is a trauma-inducing event, and everyone processes trauma differently. Some people gravitate towards fear, some towards grief, some towards isolation, and some truly are naturally geared to see positivity everywhere they look.
The problem with forcing people to feel a feeling other than what they are actually feeling is that it causes the subconscious mind to recoil, which actually induces stress that feels very much like trauma. As the saying goes, “when you go against the grain of the universe, you get splinters”. Expressing a broad range of emotions actually helps us regulate our stress response.
To force a positive outlook on pain is to encourage a person to keep silent about their struggles, leaving them alone with shame. When we’re afraid of the judgment that our honest feelings might evoke, we are tempted to pretend like everything is fine. The energy source of shame is silence, so when we hide or encourage others to hide we’re only feeding shame.
Rewriting the Toxic Positivity narrative: awareness and acceptance
The message we need to be telling is not, “you must see the bright side,” but “if you can’t see the bright side, that’s okay.” Accepting, not rejecting, our negative emotions actually helps us better deconstruct and defuse them. We need to allow ourselves the grace to feel what we’re feeling; to acknowledge our feelings, sit with them, wrestle with and validate them. If you don’t quite know how you’re feeling, give yourself a designated time to meditate and process.
But don’t give yourself time to wallow. The point of processing negative emotion is to create self-awareness and self-acceptance, giving you power over your negative emotions instead of those emotions having power over you. Once you’ve got a handle on those feelings, it’s important to practice cultivating gratitude. Essentially, we have to learn to ‘flip the script’. Did you know that what you focus on you, you create more of? So when you focus on the things you’re grateful for, you fire and wire neurons in your brain that produce real positive feelings. Cultivating positive feelings like joy, hope, and gratitude builds good mental habits that buffer the potential negative effects of stressful times.
Toxic positivity invalidates heavy emotions, leaving us feeling alone and isolated. But being a healthy human being involves being conscious of ourselves and how we show up in the world. We want to honor the struggle, acknowledge that when we sit in negative emotions for too long we succumb to them, and guide our minds to meditate on things we’re thankful for to cultivate peace in our inner being.
Previously published on “Change Becomes You”, a Medium publication.
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