Disclaimer: this post is solely for inspiration by introducing a conversation and should not be taken as professional advice.
Have you heard the expression that goes something along the lines of, “if it’s not going to matter in 5 years, then don’t spend more than 5 minutes worrying about it”? It’s generally thrown around when something not-so-great happens to help us to keep things in perspective. Sometimes, being reminded of the bigger picture can be a great way to ground us and help us work through our feelings, but it can also fail to take into account one important detail: there are a ton of things that could happen to us that may not matter in 5 years, but still matter now.
Toxic positivity is still a relativity new conversation that embodies the idea that focusing solely on the positives (or, the good) in life doesn’t leave room for any other emotion that may arise. It’s used as a push back for expressions such as “don’t worry, it could be worse”, “well, that sucks, but you should be grateful for ___”, “at least you have ______ !”, and “stop complaining, other people have it way worse.”
We’re human, which means that we have a wide array of emotions that prompt our own unique feelings. We feel happy, excited, hopeful, and optimistic, but we also feel scared, upset, overwhelmed, and fearful. But what we need to remember is that humans spent years upon years (quite literally) fighting for their lives, with their sole purpose in life just being to survive. They always had to be on high alert and had to be ready for any potential threat that could arise. Over the years, our survival needs may have changed, but our instinct to look for the negatives still exist. Being repeatedly told to look on the bright side can sometimes undermine our feelings that are very real.
Emotions vs Feelings
A lot of people use the terms emotions and feelings interchangeably, but contrary to popular belief, they’re actually two different things. Emotions are essentially the experience in our body, whereas feelings are how we process the emotion personally. Let’s say something good happens to us (such as walking into a room filled with puppies or getting two scoops of ice cream for the price of one) – we may start to experience a positive or warm response that we interpret as a happy or excited feeling. Or, on the contrary, if something bad happens (such as realizing you forgot about your exam or arriving at the airport without your wallet) – we may start to experience a negative response, that we interpret as a scared or stressed feeling. The idea behind these positive expressions (and the reason why people are calling it toxic positive) is that since emotions and feelings are separate, you’re to take a negative emotion and attach a positive feeling towards it (which could sound like: “wow, it sucks I forgot my wallet at home and I’m going to miss my flight, but at least I could afford a plane ticket in the first place”).
Also read: 10 Healthy Boundaries
Your feelings are valid
For many years, mental illness was scrutinized, and mental health was entirely undervalued. This means that over the years, we’ve gotten pretty used to praising positivity and hiding away from any sort of negativity. But the fact of the matter is that we’re human, which means that we’ll experience a wide array of emotions and feelings on any given day, let alone a lifetime. Over time, these emotions and feelings help shape our perception of the world around us, which means that when something happens, they teach us what’s a threat, what’s positive, and what’s safe.
As much as we may hope that our emotions and feelings will disappear if we ignore them long enough, the fact of the matter is that it just doesn’t work that way. In fact, always shying away from any sort of negative experience can cause us to bottle up feelings as opposed to dealing with them head-on, making them harder to process once they’re finally released. As well as failing to address our feelings could mean that we’re not developing healthy coping mechanisms for when something larger happens that we have no choice but to address.
Not all positivity is toxic
Now, it’s important to remember that the opposite of toxic positivity is not pessimism, nor does it mean that it’s healthy to walk around feeding into every negative feeling we may experience. Since our feelings are our own interpretation of the experience, we need to remember that there are a ton of variables involved in that. Think about how you would respond to somebody cutting you off while you were stressed and late for work versus when you’ve just gotten some happy news and aren’t in any rush.
Depending on the situation, shifting our focus onto something positive can be a useful tool. Firstly, it allows us to step back and process what’s actually happening at the moment (as opposed to our interpretation of it). Sometimes we can easily get caught up in the moment and fail to see the reality of the situation. Secondly, focusing on the positive can be useful (along with grounding techniques) if we find ourselves in an environment where we are unable to effectively express our feelings (such as at work or school). Thirdly, it can stop us from self-sabotaging. Sometimes, when faced with rejection (maybe your book proposal was rejected, nobody listened to your podcast, or your offer was outbid for your dream home), we can find ourselves struggling to find the motivation to continue. In these instances, replacing negative feelings with positive ones may be very beneficial.
An alternative to toxic positive could include regular gratitude practices. This could look like making a list of all the things you are grateful for in your journal every day, or even just writing one line in your day planner. The idea behind this is to get you into the habit of acknowledging the good in your life daily, as opposed to just trying to mask negative emotions with something positive. Just like anything else in life, the more you do it, the easier it’ll get.
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Recognize, Process, Release
Emotions and feelings are very complex, and understanding them won’t always be an easy task, nor is there necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to it. As a general framework (a starting point, if you will), try to recognize it, process it, and then release it.
Before anything else, take a second to recognize that the feeling is there in the first place. This may sound obvious, but think of it this way: if you’ve spent the better part of your life being told to hide your emotions, it’s going to be much more difficult to actually identify them when they pop up as an adult. In fact, many of us are pretty good at ignoring them or suppressing them before we even realize what’s happening. Give yourself the space you need to recognize that you’re feeling something as opposed to trying to avoid it immediately.
Next, take a moment to process it: try to pinpoint what it is that you’re feeling (are you happy? Excited? Scared?), what prompted it (did something happen to trigger this feeling? If so, can you identify what it was? If not, what were the moments leading up to this like?), and if you’re accurately identifying your feelings (are you upset at your teacher for not preparing you for the exam, or are you upset with yourself for not asking for help before writing the test?). Taking the time to process what’s going on, even if it’s just quickly, allows you to make an informed decision about what sort of next steps you may need.
Finally, allow yourself to release it healthily. Depending on the situation, you may decide to focus on the positives. For example, instead of focusing on the fact that you are upset about somebody cutting you off, you may choose to shift focus onto the fact that you were paying attention and could safely navigate the situation or even show gratitude towards your working brakes. However, there are some situations where focusing on the positives may not be the best course of action. Other solutions you may wish to try could include journaling, talking with a friend or family member, creating an action (or study) plan for the future, going for a walk, drawing, dancing, biking, or seeking professional help.
Let’s end it on that last one: when you’re struggling with any area of your emotional health or professing your feelings, then you need to remember that there is absolutely no shame in seeking out professional help. Think about it this way, people dedicate years upon years of higher education and continued lifelong learning to understand whatever it is you’re going through. They have spent time, energy, and resources to become an expert in the field so that you don’t need to. Talking to them is essentially reaping the benefits in an individualized manner for your own specific situation without taking years upon years to get there. Seeking an expert who knows what they’re doing allows you to get knowledgeable and reputable support that can be implemented in a timely and effective manner. At the end of the day, we all deserve to feel our best as quickly as possible.