If your friend came up to you and told you something absolutely horrible happened to them this morning, and they were extremely upset about it, would you tell them to get over it? That they should consider that other people are worse off? Or that they should remember how much they have to be grateful for?
Maybe you would…. and that is called toxic positivity. Maybe you wouldn’t dream of being so insensitive to your friend…. but do you ignore that definition of insensitivity when you yourself are dealing with something painful?
In one of the first posts I ever wrote on my blog (read it here), I talked about toxic positivity and it’s huge presence in our current society. With “good vibes only” plastered on every t-shirt, instagram page and cute art pieces these days, sometimes it’s hard to remember that NO ONE is a beam of sunshine all the time. We all of crappy days, and sometimes we forget that we are allowed to experience “negative emotions”. And when we deny ourselves the ability to be upset on the crappy days, we suppress how we are truly feeling.
Even if you are the spokesperson of accepting bad days and negative emotions to your loved ones, you probably force these “good vibes only” ideals on yourself (to my fiancee if you’re reading this, yes I’m talking about myself too). When we use toxic positivity towards ourselves, we are saying that regardless of what other people feel, WE are not allowed to feel these negative emotions and we need to try harder to eliminate them completely.
Have you caught yourself scrolling through instagram and felt FOMO (fear of missing out), watched a friend get promoted while you stayed where you are, or seen people hit milestones that you wish/think you should be at and felt guilty when you caught yourself feeling upset? Have you tried to stamp out that sadness/negative emotion by telling yourself one of the phrases above? Except these phrases usually don’t get rid of the emotion, they just create an environment of self-judgement, which can intensify emotions with guilt or more sadness.
Consider for example, you decided to do something for yourself (yay self love!) and enroll in a school program or single course to better your career path. While you are doing this work, you stumble across a photo of a couple friends hanging out and feel sad/left out/jealous etc. Because we know these feelings are labelled as “bad”, and society has taught us to be uncomfortable with people’s pain/trauma including our own, we try to push those feelings away. This is a an unconscious mental strategy to help us avoid painful, unresolved and problematic emotions. Maybe we’re feeling sad because we’re scared we aren’t loved, or scared that something from our childhood/past relationships might come up and our brains don’t want to deal with that. So rather than dealing with deeper emotions that might come up, we tell ourselves we need to get over it and think about what positive stuff is in our lives and move on.
Now I am all for gratitude journals, and remembering that yes, there are usually people that are experiencing something worse that you are, but this isn’t something we have to force ourselves into 24/7. If recalling what you are grateful for helps you feel remember all you have, that’s a beautiful practice to have once a day perhaps before bed. But in the moment when you are feeling upset about a specific thing, pushing that sadness away is not a “mindful practice” but a toxic hit to your emotions. Next time you feel upset about something that you see or something that you’ve experienced, instead of trying to end the conversation with yourself by saying you should be grateful and that this sadness is not appropriate, try to validate yourself. Just like you would do for a loved one, validate the emotion you’re feeling and name it – instead of putting all your energy into blocking out this “negativity”, show yourself some empathy and try to understand the way you feel.
As an occupational therapist, I will always be the first to preach taking care of your mental health, accepting your emotions and reaching out for help…. but as a human being, I too struggle with all of these things. With COVID hitting in the middle of my first year out of grad school, I have watched all of my friends have multiple interviews, get different jobs, buy houses and cars, and do fun exciting things. While I recognize that everyone’s situations are different, I catch myself feeling guilty about feeling like I’m falling behind because I have lots to be excited and grateful for. Despite the pandemic, my fiancee and I are still planning our wedding, I am teaching more yoga and dance than I ever have in my life (from the comfort of my own home!) and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of cool and different experiences since graduation. But I too need to allow myself to feel lost sometimes, to feel sad, jealous, behind, upset etc. With society forming this framework of when we are SUPPOSED to hit certain milestones, what our careers are supposed to look like and what ages are “too old” to do certain things, moving away from toxic positivity and holding space for ourselves will be a CONSTANT practice. But we are all in this together, to encourage the full spectrum of emotions and create a safe space to feel when others are in a hard place.
If you are feeling lost and unsure who to talk to, or want more information about toxic positivity, there are lots of accounts out there. Sitwithwhit is one of my favourite instagram accounts to read more about toxic positivity. And if you need to chat, you can always connect with me via social media or email.