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Forget "Toxic Positivity" - It's Okay To Not Be Okay

If I share with friends or family that I’m having a difficult time, their instinct is to console me. They respond with different variations of these phrases:

“Think of the glass as half full, rather than half empty.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“It could be worse so be grateful for what you have.”

I think these are some of the most hurtful things I’ve ever been told. I know they don’t intend to harm me, but rather than allowing me to share my struggles, and be comforted during hard times, they’ve simply tried to distract me from them. It feels dismissive of the things that bother me. Their solution to my problems revolves around ignoring the negative and focusing on the positive. Ultimately, their belief is that the “power of a positive mindset” will act like the magic words to make all my troubles go away. They’re not necessarily wrong in thinking that a positive attitude helps to cope in the face of adversity. But they’re attempts at positivity aren’t helping me. In fact, they’re making it worse.

“Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking,” says Zawn Villines from Medical News Today. “It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.” Toxic positivity often paints emotions like sadness and fear to be inherently bad. Emotions cannot be good or bad, even if they make us feel that way. The range of emotions that we feel are all informative and help us navigate the world. When toxic positivity pushes us to ignore everything that makes us feel bad, we end up invalidating what we feel and denying authentic human emotional experiences. In return, the negativity grows and festers, causing more harm than if we had addressed our feelings from the beginning. There’s no room for compassion, for ourselves or others, if we fail to recognize even the negative experiences in our life.

I saw toxic positivity amplified during the pandemic. In the face of a global health threat, exponential death rates, and a general increase in feelings of anxiety and depression, it seemed like everyone was doing their best to cope with such an unfamiliar situation. Their method of choice was to turn quarantine into a time of productivity – baking bread, picking up knitting, trying yoga, starting a garden. Admittedly, an impressive variety of great hobbies, but all having one thing in common: they served as distractions from how lonely the reality of isolation was. Everyone’s efforts to be productive, to stay positive, had the expectation that they would be rewarded for their efforts. They wanted to feel “good” again. I don’t blame them, because if I had the choice between feeling awful or feelings great, the answer is obvious. The reality is that we’re approaching two years of a global pandemic. People are still in despair but expected to be okay and “back to normal”.

“It’s okay to not be okay.” We hear this often, perhaps we should start taking it to heart? A lot have people have suffered from this pandemic, among the more common experiences of pain and sadness. When we say that it’s okay to not be okay, we mean that it’s okay to let us feel everything we feel. It’s okay to feel absolutely beaten down for one reason or another because we’re not always gonna feel happy. I want to add to that.

It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to just be okay. We need to remove of this expectation or end goal of happiness. I might not be feeling especially anxious today, but that doesn’t mean that I feel great. I might have everything that I need materially, but that doesn’t mean I’m mentally or emotionally fulfilled. I might be pleased that life feels like it’s going back to “normal”, but I might also still be mourning what we’ve lost and stressed about how to act nowadays. It’s time to acknowledge that feelings aren’t black and white, and we should let ourselves experience all of it.

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