Toxic Positivity and The Complexities of Human Emotion

I would like to preface this entry by saying that I am NOT a mental health professional and hold zero expertise in the field of psychology. This article is a mere reflection of my thoughts and what I have learned through my personal experience. 

“I don’t believe our world needs more positivity. I believe our world needs minds that are equipped to deal with the complexity of life. Minds that can hold nuance and polarity. Minds that can stay grounded, centered, and open to the full range of what it means to be human.” – Cory Muscara 

While scrolling through various social media accounts, as you do to avoid studying, I came across this quote that moved me entirely. Growing up, I was surrounded by friends, family, peers, and teachers who always preached this idea about being positive. Although that perspective has helped shape who I am today – there is much to be said about the complexities of the human emotional experience. This adventure of life carries with it a host of convoluted emotions which is why we cannot always look at situations and people through this “one-size-fits-all” scope of positivity because frankly, life is much more than just black and white. There is a lot of chaotic emotion under the thick paint of “positivity.” So much so, that at times, it can be labelled as “toxic positivity”. There are infinite aspects of life this applies to; however, I will speak of only a few, as this topic is quite vast.

Feeling Guilty for Having “Bad” Emotions

Although it is true that certain emotions can poorly effect our overall health, the first thing to note here is that there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion. Everywhere we look we are constantly bombarded with contemporary quotes like “Good Vibes Only” or “Be Positive” and have grown accustomed to brushing away anything that makes us feel even remotely “blah”. We tend to drown ourselves in alcohol and recreational drugs to elicit a “happy” emotion or even worse, no emotion at all. When we categorize emotions into “good” or “bad” we give way for guilt to kick in. Instead, let’s replace every category with just one – human. Acknowledging is the first step to healing. In fact, the only way to truly heal is to feel the painful and ugly realities that appear in the darkest crevices of our lives. Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī, more popularly known as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Sufi poet who wrote a wonderful poem about a healthy way of cycling emotion throughout our lives: 

The Guest House 

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Although I cannot express my words as eloquently as he once did, the idea is the same. You have to sit with the awfully agonizing feeling of your heart being shattered into a million pieces; sit with your chest feeling heavy; release the crocodile tears. Hell, scream if you have to, but get THROUGH it, NOT over it! When you get “over” something the wound is just covered with a store-bought bandaid that will lose its adherence at the first touch of water; but, when you go through it, your wound turns into a scar and isn’t shaken by anything that touches it because it has closed. It has healed. That’s your battle scar, a symbol of your strength and perseverance. If you take the easy path, life will be hard, but if you take the hard path, life will get easier. If you don’t allow yourself to process, you’ll be robbed of essential spiritual and emotional growth. Grow through what you go through so you can develop emotional intelligence to help fight your next battle.

Welcome Your Demons to the Table 

Things to say when life isn’t okay (and that’s okay):

  • I feel sad today
  • I don’t feel like me today
  • I need a break 
  • No, I don’t wanna go out tonight
  • I am not okay, and that is perfectly okay 
  • Today was rough 
  • One day at a time
  • I am still enough 
  • All feelings are welcome

It is crucial to realize that this course of action is difficult, but it is necessary. We have curated this culture of “Treat Yo Self”, and although that is fun and cool, it is not the solution. Self care doesn’t always look like doing mud masks, eating a tub of ice cream, and binge watching your favorite show. You can perform the staple actions and slap on the “self-care” label, but drinking green tea and doing yoga won’t help if you’re not dealing with what’s within. If you’re not digging through and sitting with your emotions, you’re hindering yourself from living a healthier, mental life. 

Toxic Positivity Projection 

It is also important to realize that toxic positivity does not only manifest within yourself and dance with your demons, but it can also shine outwards and impact your interactions with others. This can look good on the outside because you think you’re trying to help, but know that you are making matters worse for the other person because you are not allowing them to be their authentic selves. 

In an unideal situation, one can feel a wave of scary emotions that they have never felt before. It can be a very frightening and novel place for some, and it is in those moments they require the most love and care. Although everyone in that moment may want to help, we have to be mindful of what we say to not dismiss their authentic feelings. Wanting to help can sometimes backfire if we don’t use appropriate wording. It is also important to realize that this is just where they are in the present moment. Most people do not wish to bask in their misery forever, they want to get through it; but, it is a process. We need to realize that they may not be in a great place at the given moment, but they also aren’t staying there forever. So, saying things to get them over the problem and not through it could prove to be detrimental to their mental, spiritual, and, sometimes, physical health. 

Things not to say to someone who isn’t feeling too hot: 

  • Just be positive 
  • It could be worse 
  • (Don’t talk about yourself the whole time) 
  • You’re gonna have to get over it 
  • Winners don’t cry 
  • Failure is not an option
  • Think happy thoughts 
  • Good vibes only 

Although we are all physicians in training, the need to adopt this thinking pattern in all areas should be a prerequisite to adult life. Nevertheless, it is important to keep a healthy positive mindset. Even though toxic positivity exists, it does not negate the benefits of having a positive mindset that encompasses the intricacies of human life and the emotional experience that comes with it. However, cultivating an attitude of gratitude is essential to living a happier and healthier life. Making a daily and conscious effort to mentally list all the things we are grateful for can almost instantaneously put us in a better mood. In fact, in the Islamic faith, the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) was once narrated saying, “Look at those who are below you, and do not look at those who are above you, for that is more likely to hold you back from belittling the blessings that Allah (God) has bestowed upon you.” Whether you believe in a God or not, try focusing on what you do have to give you a jumpstart on feeling better, once you are ready.

Always know that no matter what you’re experiencing, your feelings are valid. The first step is acknowledging, the second is sitting with it, and the third is sending those emotions out the door and on their way. This way, we are building emotional intelligence, growing spiritually and leading a healthier mental life. Feel your feelings but don’t let them become you, onwards and upwards, always!

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