Positively Toxic

“Positive vibes only.”

“Being happy is a choice.”

“Put good stuff out into the universe, and good stuff will come back.”

Before a pandemic swept the globe and changed our lives – almost certainly on a permanent basis – empty sayings like these were everywhere. Unfortunately, our collective change in circumstances have done little to make them go away.

Devoid of humanity and empathy, these statements aim at oversimplifying mental health and complex emotional states. They look nice on brightly colored coffee mugs and T-shirts, but they do as much harm as phrases that veer in the opposite direction. “Everything sucks” is the twin opposite of “Positive vibes only,” and neither one allows for the shades of gray we exist in on a daily basis.

The label that usually gets applied to this line of sickeningly perky and unrealistic way of thinking is toxic positivity. It’s a good one, for sure. I haven’t found a better term for it yet. At least not one that’s family friendly.

A dear friend of mine shared an article about this, and it does a far better job of laying out the dangers of this mentality and offers suggestions for how to approach complicated emotions as we remain separate from one another (and even after things have improved).

The article is called The Danger in Fake Positivity and Spiritual Bypassing, and there’s lots of good food for thought within. I’ll share a couple highlights here, but it’s definitely worth your time to go read the whole thing.

Excerpt #1: Fake positivity can perpetuate a lot of the stigma around mental illness. Encouraging someone who has clinical depression to focus on the positive is not helpful and can actually do more harm. This advice can bolster the feeling that they are at fault because they cannot simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps. I tell people struggling with depression that they are more tuned in to real human experience and emotion than those pushing the positive-vibes-only agenda.

Excerpt #2: Sometimes there is nothing to do with or about these emotions. Sometimes we need to simply acknowledge these feelings—to sit with sorrow, resentment, or jealousy without trying to change the experience or pick it apart. We have to allow ourselves to unfold, to witness emotions flooding our system, to breathe into the places in our bodies where we are stuck. We experience a softening when we allow space for all emotions, not just those that feel good.

Personally, I’ve found that the healthiest approach to my own mental health is not to dismiss negative feelings, but to examine them and turn them on their head. 

I woke up this morning feeling pretty upset about not making as much progress as I’ve wanted to on my manuscript revisions.  Instead of fixating on that negative perspective (unhealthy on one end of the spectrum) or swapping out those thoughts for the false narrative that it’ll work out fine if I just stay positive (unhealthy on the other end of the spectrum), I used replacement thoughts.

Here’s how that works:

Original thought: I’m failing at getting my novel revised and really wasting the extra time I have.

Replacement thought: Things are really tough right now, and even though I’m not making great progress on the novel, I’m still making progress. There’s still time to work on it, and I need to take care of myself more than I need to get revisions done.

My replacement thought honors the tough emotions I feel while also acknowledging that the opportunity for progress still exists. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation. This allows me to use my internal struggles for growth, rather than brushing them aside in favor of a thin veneer that suggests everything is fine just because.

Don’t let someone else diminish your emotional experiences and mental health needs with trite sayings. If it seems too easy, it probably is. And if it makes you feel wrong for experiencing an authentic human emotion, you’re not. The hollow phrase is.

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