“Good vibes only!”

Have you ever pretended to be happy when you’re not? Scrolled through social media and seen nothing but happy faces, picturesque scenes and ideal lifestyles? Many of us are guilty of it (yes I am …) or have experienced it before. While there is something to be said for having a sunny disposition on life, it’s also possible to overdose on it.

“Stay positive.”

“Look at the bright side.”

“Choose happiness!”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

There are many reasons to feel down right now. The news cycle is a constant reminder of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting us on a local, national and global scale. Health concerns, frustration, loneliness, systematic racism, financial uncertainty, and hopelessness are all having a widespread impact on our mental health. What we need is a steady dose of positivity, right? Well, yes—but positivity comes in different forms, and they’re not all necessarily good for us. Constant promotion of positivity, however well-meaning it may be, can potentially become toxic. We are taught to feel wrong if we experience ‘bad’ emotions. When we feel this guilt, we seek to find solutions or fixes to change the emotions as quickly as possible. This adds to a growing cycle of shame and frustration.

Toxic positivity is the push for a mental state in which we only experience and show “positive” emotions. We see this push in books, quotes, social media, and everyday conversations. We have created a positivity culture that values relentless positivity over emotional agility and resilience—a culture that can put unreasonable responsibility on an individual’s shoulders. If we can feel healthier and happier by thinking positively, the reverse must also be true: the reason we’re still not better is because we’re not positive enough. And this can be a huge burden.

Becoming more inwardly focused is always a challenge, as we all have inner demons. When we are alone, true feelings come through and they’re not always the preferred ones. The struggle between our real emotions and our projected ones can lead to suffering and further helplessness and isolation.

When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions—both positive and negative. This acceptance and acknowledgment can surprisingly provide a sense of relief and freedom. That we are as we truly are. It confirms that pain, worry, heartbreak, and fear are normal and real parts of being a human.  Life can bring up painful emotions and while these emotions aren’t pleasant or enjoyable, they’re important. They’re important to feel, and they’re important to express. They are portals.

We can be grateful to have a roof over our head and hate the job that’s continuing to pay us in order to afford that roof. We can be devastated at the loss of life from COVID-19, but still enjoy the downtime during lockdown. We can be grateful for our immediate family and children and be frustrated about virtual learning.

Unblinking optimism and shutting the door on negative feelings doesn’t make them go away; if anything, it exacerbates them. Perpetual positivity oversimplifies the human brain and how we process emotions, and it can actually be detrimental to our mental health as it can discourage people to open up and seek support for their struggles. Feeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety, while isolation fuels these emotional issues. Often, trying to hide or deny feelings can lead to more stress on the body and increased difficulty in avoiding upsetting emotions.

So if toxic positivity isn’t the answer, then what is? What is a healthier, kinder, and realistic approach? Validation. Acknowledgment. Encouragement. Comfort. Support. Grace. Compassion. Gratitude. Real and meaningful connection.

Acknowledge and address your negative emotions and give yourself permission to have conflicting emotions at the same time. Pay attention to the difference between the things you can and cannot change and control.

Take a deeper look at your anxiety through journaling or mental and breathing exercises.

Once you’ve explored what’s causing you anxiety, make an extra effort to create boundaries and take care of yourself. Be gentle and kind and give yourself grace.

Try to believe that savoring the little good things in life makes it easier to get through the big bad ones.

We need access to realistic and authentic optimism to see the world as it is, and work positively towards a desired outcome or solution. We can’t ignore life’s stressors but we can strive to approach hardship in a more productive way and construct an optimistic vision of life that can allow us to sit with discomfort, and develop coping skills during times of hardship. A toxic positivity veil is a hindrance in the progress toward a more conscious world. Denial of emotions keeps us at a surface level of personal understanding. Emotions need our honest attention.

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