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A note on Toxic Positivity

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Understanding the importance of honesty

(Content warning; shame, addiction, anxiety)

Count your blessings

It could be worse

Think of those less fortunate

Fake it till you make it

You'll get through this

You can't think that way

There's something better in store for you

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger

It's meant to be

NO IT'S NOT! I'm angry and hurting and all that you are saying invalidates me and my experience. I understand that I cannot change what's happened but it hurts so much.

We generally mean well when using the above or similar responses but it may not always be helpful.

What we might end up doing is perpetuating the myth that "good" emotions (feelings/emotions used interchangably) are to be celebrated and amplified and that "bad" emotions have to be neutralised, nullified, unaired or not tolerated. It is worth exploring the tendency to judge feelings, These judgements are often binary - maybe we live in a binary world? We like good and bad - it's easy to pick a side rather than negotiate nuance and humaness and silence and holding and containment. We like to fix - to solve - to know - to have certainty and form and to have control. Feelings just are. They don't choose a day or a place or a time or circumstance. They come, without permission or scheduling or a sense of occasion They are sticky and uncomfortable and inconvenient and can leave us vulnerable and anxious. And that's ok.

We might want to alter how we feel. Sometimes we don't know how we feel - it may be an ackwardness with the world on that day. Some of us were not taught the language of our inner selves and the rich vocabulary that describes the landscape of human emotions. So we grew into adulthood emotionally illiterate. And likely paid a price.

Numbing is likely to make matters worse in the long run. When we medicate and/or use drugs and alcohol to obliviate - when we eat, exercise, binge, watch porn or spend money we don't have - we aren't really understanding the purpose of emotions. They are not good or bad - they just are. Often they are uncomfortable - very uncomfortable and really, really, really hard to bear. And they will likely pass. Good or bad, they have they own lifespan.

Emotions may threaten to overwhelm and frighten us and we may feel uncomfortable in our own skin. We don't like or want this to be happening. However, if we tolerate our feelings of discomfort, we will learn that they pass in their own time. We live in a society that insists on convenience. We have acclimated to a world of instant gratification and so much that we want is at our fingertips. Why do we feel that distress or suffering should not be part of our lives?

Another issue in this ChatGPT world we live in is that we cannot feel what we want when we want to. We cannot app it away. This may present challenges in a world where we can get almost anything we want in a matter of minutes. Have we been spoilt? Maybe. Indulged? Maybe. Feeling powerless over emotions is as old as the tide. Not knowing how long a distressing feeling is likely to last is frustrating but judging ourselves harshly for having it is not the solution. Maybe acceptance is the key here. I just feel this way at this time.

Feelings have equal value. They have a job to do. When we feel disappointed it sharpens up the sense of what matters; feeling sad about a loss, a rejection or a break up indicates that we care; feeling angry that we are being left to carry the slack at work is a call to assert ourselves Feelings have purpose and meaning.

The one feeling that is likely to be unhelpful is shame. The feeling that you are not good enough to exist is not ok. It is likely to have been put into you by people or a system that wanted to control you. It is a cruel weapon. There may be work to do around that but we all deserve to live a shame free life. Guilt on the other hand can be useful. When we hurt others or do something that disrespects another it's not a bad thing to feel bad. It decreases the chance of it happening again.

So, when someone is having a bad day and is sharing their inner world with you, you don't need to go all Dr. Phil (Dr. Phil excepted) and may wish to say "Sounds tough - what do you need from me?". Just validating their feelings is often enough. If any of us feel minimized or neutralized in some way this can compound the hurt and may leave us feeling it is wrong, that there is something defective in our messy, inconvenient humaness. Nor is it about being a victim. We have agency - let's not forget.

Being authentic is what matters. S**t happens. If someone is in pain and you want to help, maybe just listen? You don't need to fix them or feel compelled to cheer them up. It's not about you. It's ok to be sad, anxious, in pain or in low mood. It's a part of being human. We are complete creatures. We cannot airbrush our feelings and there is real danger in insisting that we do so.


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