Toxic Positivity: In Defense of Negative Emotionsby Kinga Lewandowska
The emotional dimension of our existence can be a complex, multilayered, door-leading-to-another-door kind of maze. We often navigate it unsure of what’s waiting around the corner. We go up, we go down, sometimes holding a map that we’re unable to read or following a GPS that leads us astray. We stumble and fall, then we dust ourselves off and keep going. It’s a wild ride to be human.
Life is a package deal, it comes with both light and darkness, happiness and pain, and it’s only natural that we need an array of emotions to deal with different situations and circumstances. Why, then, do we insist on rejecting half of those feelings? Because we think of sadness, anger, or grief as doom and gloom that can ruin our mental stability. We could not be more wrong.
The Healthy Truth
Research shows that accepting negative emotions has a positive effect on our mental health. Here’s why. There’s no escaping the fact that at some point in life we will all experience bumps in the road that can result in heartache, disappointment, anger, loss, grief, and other fifty shades of sadness. If we deny painful emotions, suppress them, and bottle them up, they will eventually boil and overflow. Have you ever barked something unpleasant at a loved one, or snapped at an employee? Have you experienced digestive problems out of the blue without a single change to your diet? Then it might be time to look within.
Negative emotions have a detrimental impact on our bodies and minds only when we deny them or cultivate them. Studies prove that repressing your emotional truth may lead to a wide range of physical and mental conditions such as hypertension, psoriasis, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, kidney failure, obesity, chronic pain, weakness and fatigue, anxiety, depression, the list goes on and on.
Repressing emotions can also weaken your immunity system and trigger stress-related physiological reactions. Cancer has become a leading cause of death worldwide. What’s more, the risk of death from this disease increases in patients who chronically conceal and avoid their feelings and experiences.
We are not here to scare you, but we need to face the truth, our emotional truth. Negative feelings are an integral part of our existence. They are here for a reason: to help us relent in our reactions to stressors and embrace the richness and color of our lives. The sooner we trust our emotional truth, the healthier we will be.
Emotional Rigidity vs. Agility
Psychologist Susan David argues that the traditional view of emotions as merely good or bad is rigid and ineffective. A fierce advocate for emotional agility, she underlines that in the face of the ever-increasing complexity of our world, emotional suppression is counterproductive to our resilience and thriving.
Susan was a teenager when her father passed away. In the months following his death she maintained a composed and happy façade, never dropped a single grade at school, and was praised for her strength. She kept refusing to accept the full weight of her pain until grief erupted in the form of eating disorders. Her eighth grade teacher came to the rescue. She gave Susan a blank notebook and told her to write down the whole truth about her feelings as if nobody was reading. This simple, yet revolutionary act helped Susan process her pain authentically and step outside of her rigid denial.
“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” – Susan David
Brooding, victim mentality, and getting stuck inside our heads is hardly a way to go. Yet, so is pushing our feelings aside and masking what we’re really going through. Susan’s research showed that a third of us judge ourselves for feeling sad or angry, and we sometimes unintentionally shame others out of their bad emotions, too. “Just stay positive”, we say, “smile more”. Susan calls this a tyranny of positivity.
We don’t control our emotions by smiling at them. In this case, ignorance isn’t bliss. If we cover our wounds with Band-Aids of sunshine, they will sting and burn. Internal pain always comes out until we heal it and we can only do that through confronting our demons with emotional agility.
"Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life." – Susan David
The online world is full of optimistic messages, memes, slogans, and generally taking positivity too far. On top of that, our well-meaning friends and family often assure us that “everything will be ok”, “look on the bright side”, “be grateful, it could be worse”. The line between such advice and gaslighting is blurry. And gratitude only works when it’s sincere because its power comes from embracing the whole truth of your inner life, not the best fraction of it.
Toxic positivity is forced happiness. It’s the assumption that DESPITE your difficult situation and emotional turmoil you should change your outlook on life and be cheerful. As if there was a magic switch in our heads. Happiness can be a choice but it’s not that simple. There’s no true wellbeing without acknowledging discomfort and uneasiness. Validate your inner truth, get to the bottom of your pain, work through it, and be realistic. Fake happiness is a sandcastle, it will crumble and fall when the tide comes.
Forcing ourselves into a particular mood or state of mind usually results in feelings of inadequacy. The world of toxic positivity convinces us that having negative emotions is wrong, it picks apart our sense of belonging, and makes us dread failure. The good vibes only culture is a slippery slope into shame, guilt, insecurity, and depression. We are not broken or incomplete because we feel sad or angry.
Here, the fake it till you make it approach causes more harm than good. Trying to get over your inner struggles by locking them away in a secret compartment of your heart disrupts the natural balance of your humanity. We’ve been designed to contain multitudes.
Too Much of Anything
The requirements of our modern world keep putting new pressures on our shoulders. No wonder that the self-help industry is now a billion-dollar machine that supposedly holds all the answers to our problems. We’ve seen the rise of self-proclaimed gurus and coaches selling us their secrets to starting a profitable business and retiring early. In an age when anyone can become a TikTok celebrity, we have the right to feel confused and overwhelmed.
It’s truly wonderful that the 21st century provides an abundance of exciting opportunities. Yet, it’s so easy to get lost in this world of unsolicited advice, obsessive self-improvement, and the dos and don’ts for success and prosperity. Productivity can take your work to another level, spread your message across the world influencing it in a meaningful way. But toxic productivity can burn you out, wear you down, and kill your joy – all for the sake of action-faking, appearing busy on social media, or spiraling into accomplishing more and more for the sake of checking things off the list.
Self-education, mentorship, and guidance can be life-altering. However, if you optimize your life too much, will there still be room for awe and joy in it? Do you really need to read one more book about socializing or is it time to go out and interact with actual people? Toxic productivity, like toxic positivity, can eventually strip your life off its depth. Reconfigure your perspective and listen to your instincts. Trust yourself above anybody else (yes, including us at Intelligent Change).
It means “hello” in Zulu. But a more literal translation is, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being”. It’s the epitome of the art of interaction with other human beings. It’s an antidote to toxic positivity.
When we have an opportunity to help somebody else carry their load, we need quality time and an honest conversation with that person. Truth is power. “Everything might not be ok, but I’m here for you” is a much better and sincere wording for the aid and support we want to provide. Listen to the other person nonjudgmentally, don’t try to solve their pain, simply sit with them, be the light in their darkness for a while, and give them space to purge their suffering. Create a loving environment and be willing to make an effort to truly understand what they want to communicate.
Toxic positivity is running away and hiding from somebody’s cry for help. Forcing inauthentic happiness on others will distance you from them and invalidate the seriousness of their experiences and feelings. Instead, ask how you can help, if they want to talk, or if there is anything they would need from you. Take their hand in yours or give them a hug. Sometimes compassion is the absence of words.
In Defense of Optimism
Genuine happiness and optimism come with a number of benefits. Optimists tend to live longer, experience less stress, and achieve more success because of their persistence and belief. Yet, flourishing and authentic joy are a result of radical acceptance of all of our feelings, no exceptions. It’s entirely possible to feel sad and still maintain a fully positive outlook on life.
Emotions are data. We need to know what’s really going on inside to diagnose ourselves quicker and catch the wellness train before it leaves the station. Fake smiles are an ineffective exit strategy. If we numb ourselves inside, we’ll lose the ability to deal with the reality as it is, as opposed to what we want it to be. Accepting and expressing our raw emotions, learning their contours and teachings, is the only way to honest positivity and wellbeing.