Ditch Toxic Positivity: It’s Okay Not to Be Okay

Ditch toxic positivity because as it turns out, it is not helping anyone. Cynthia sat at her desk staring at the numbers. They just aren’t adding up. There is a lot more going out of the business account than is coming in. The global pandemic which started 6 months ago is taking a toll on her finances at work and at home. She’s put on a brave face for months now, but the reality of the financial struggle is real. Everyone says it’s all going to be okay, and she need not worry. But they aren’t the ones looking at the books! She thinks, “it’s not okay!!” We’re in the middle of a crisis! There is a lot of stress and a lot of unknown. There’s more unpredictability than ever before in her life. Cynthia prays somehow it will all work out. But, for now, she just needs people to stop telling her “everything will be fine and it could be worse.” That isn’t helping. 

Rebecca is a second-grade teacher. Her room is not big enough for all 20 children to be six feet apart. The rules do not require first through third graders to wear masks when seated at their desks. She must wear a mask all day and love on her students from afar because COVID-19 is on the loose. It is hard not to worry about all the kids spreading germs. She worries about her health, her family’s health, and her parent’s health. It’s all very overwhelming and scary. She’s tired of hearing “it’s all going to be okay” because it is not okay. There’s so much unpredictability right now. Rebecca thinks, why is everyone being so positive? 

Ditch Toxic Positivity 

Toxic Positivity Definition

Life stresses many people around the world more than usual because of much unrest, specifically in America. I read an article titled, Time to ditch ‘Toxic Positivity’, Experts Say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’ and I immediately texted my friend and wellness coach, Tharwat Lovett. She texted me back and said, “I love that! I have had several clients tell me they get sick of all the positivity sometimes. It’s so true!!!” I told her I was going to write about it and I wanted to discuss some ways she suggests coping with the stressful times we are facing. There is so much uncertainty in the world, and it’s okay not to be okay. 

This article says experts caution “against going overboard with the ‘good vibes only’ trend. Too much forced positivity is not just unhelpful, they say – it’s toxic (positivity)”. Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says, “By far the most common [phrase] is ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It will be fine,’. You’re stating that there really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed, period. You are kind of shutting out the possibility for further contemplation.” 

Preston says, “It’s a problem when people are forced to seem or be positive in situations where it’s not natural or when there’s a problem that legitimately needs to be addressed that can’t be addressed if you don’t deal with the fact that there is distress or need.” 

Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston says, “‘Looking on the bright side’ in the face of tragedy or dire situations like illness, homelessness, food insecurity, unemployment or racial injustice is a privilege that not all of us have. So promulgating messages of positivity deny a very real sense of despair and hopelessness, and they only serve to alienate and isolate those who are already struggling.” 

Internalizing such messages can also be damaging. Dattilo said, “We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt. We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem-solving.” 

Research shows that accepting negative emotions, and not avoiding them, maybe better for our mental health in the long run. Dattilo said, “Recognize that how you feel is valid, no matter what. It’s okay not to be okay.” 

Crawley and Lovett Discussion 

I called Tharwat Lovett, and we discussed the article mentioned above. 

Mindfulness 

Crawley: If we are doing our best to take care of our body’s health by getting 8 hours of sleep, eating healthy foods, limiting our sugar intake, drinking 1⁄2 our body weight in water, and exercising daily, and taking our Juice Plus, then what else can we do to care for our mental health during this difficult time? 

Lovett: One thing we can do is practice mindfulness. Mark Williams and Danny Penman define mindfulness in their book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. They say, “mindfulness is the awareness that emerges when we learn to pay attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment to things as they are. In mindfulness meditation, we cultivate the ability to stay awake and aware of what is happening in our mind and body and in the world around us so we can see clearly and discern wisely what is true and what is wholesome.” 

Mindful.org defines mindfulness as, “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing in the present, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis. Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. There’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.” 

By using mindfulness tools, we can activate and deactivate things within our body chemically, and even in a muscular way, when we practice self-care and treat our bodies with respect. As far as our autonomic nervous system is concerned, when we engage in these simple mindful activities (spending time in the sun, time with family, time exercising outdoors, meditation), we engage the calming parasympathetic responses more often, giving the body more time to rest and replenish. 

Breathing Techniques 

Crawley: Most of us know that it is essential to focus on what matters, but sometimes we get overwhelmed. What are some examples of how you recommend we do this?

Lovett: Breathing techniques are probably the easiest way to engage in mindfulness. When we are mindful of our breathing, we are paying attention to our breath in the present moment. This takes our attention away from thoughts about the past or the future, which tend to cause anxiety. Typically, when we are stressed out, the last thing we’re thinking about is breathing. We often hold our breath or our breathing becomes irregular, then our body follows suit. If we are breathing irregularly and holding our breath, our heart is going to race, our muscles will tense and our digestion will slow down. So, if we are feeling anxious and don’t know what to do, we can respond with breathwork. One example of breathwork is the box breathing technique. 

Box Breathing 

Box breathing is a powerful, yet simple, relaxation technique that aims to return your breath to its natural rhythm. This exercise can help clear the mind, relax the body and improve focus. It is so simple that a person can do it anywhere, including at a work desk or in a restaurant. Before starting, people should sit with their back supported in a comfortable chair and their feet on the floor. 

First, you close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. Second, hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds. Third, begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds. Last, repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns to your body. 

Lovett: There’s another breathing technique that I recently learned about where you break up your exhale into three parts. You begin by inhaling deeply for 4 seconds. Then you exhale a third of the breath, hold it for a second, then exhale the second part. Finally, release the rest of the breath after the second pause. Engaging in exercises like these are going to pull us back into the present moment, fostering the mindfulness that helps us control the racing thoughts about the past and the future. 

Crawley: Those are great! Many of us feel like we are spiraling out of control at the moment because of many outside factors we have zero control over. 

Lovett: The toxic positivity article suggests that being overly positive is in a way causing us to feel as if we are sticking our head in the sand or failing when we have a negative thought. In essence, it can create more harm than good if we try to avoid all negative thought or negative emotion. It is important to understand what an emotion is. Emotions are energetic packets of information. If we’re only reading half of our emotional messages (positive ones) and completely ignoring the other half (negative ones) then we’re not really serving ourselves or anyone else. 

The real growth and learning in life comes from those little negative packets of information that we receive from the negative emotions. 

Emotions

Lovett: Emotions are also something we can learn to regulate, influence, or even generate. An emotion is a biochemical response to a thought we’re thinking. This is where it can go toxic. If we’re trying to control our emotions by only validating the positive ones, then we’re ignoring the action signals that are being prompted by the negative emotions. We are invalidating our experiences. Tony Robbins refers to emotion as an action signal. 

When we experience an emotion, especially negative emotions, it is prompting us to either adjust our perspective on the issue or change a behavior. Robbins refers to emotions as action signals. We are being asked to update the perspective or behavior. When we are experiencing a positive emotion, our body is telling us ‘right on’. When we are experiencing a negative emotion, our body is telling us one of two things. One is that I’m looking at this in a way that’s not serving me. Second, it’s telling me it’s time to change my routine, my reaction, or my narrative. 

Crawley: So, if we ignore those negative emotions and invalidate them, then we’re missing the point. We are slowing down our own progress and growth, aren’t we? 

Find Your Tribe

Lovett: Yes! Another important action we can take to combat toxic positivity is by putting forth effort into finding our people aka our support group aka our tribe. It doesn’t have to be many people. It can be just one or two people, but we need those people to be non-judgmental and able to hold a space for unconditional positive regard. 

These are the people who will celebrate our wins and love us through our losses. They will not judge us, but listen and offer support even when they don’t have the answers. Some people don’t enjoy sharing that kind of personal information with those they know, so another helpful alternative is to hire a professional. We all need someone to talk to or decompress with. Trained professionals can offer insight and alternative perspectives. They can validate our emotions or give us tools we can use to validate our own. 

So, ultimately, negative emotions are opportunities. If we are not accepting of them, then nobody else will be either. If we completely ignore the message, it has nowhere to go. Emotion is energy in motion. Ignoring emotion stops motion. That energy gets stuck inside the body and all that information, there to simply deliver a message, stagnates. The negative energy can’t move through us, so it remains stuck inside of us, primarily in our nervous system. If left unresolved for long periods of time, it can lead to chronic disease or disorder. It can interfere with our body’s ability to function properly. 

Feel Your Feelings

Crawley: This is so interesting and true. So, what I hear you saying is that we should feel our feelings (good, bad, and ugly), sit in it for a bit, process it for a while, but then move on. It’s unhealthy to stay in the negative emotion like being sad, mad, disgusted, full of rage, or annoyance. The negative emotions are there to teach you something and tell you something, but dwelling on it can be harmful, right? 

Lovett: Yes, people can grow severely depressed if they dwell on the negative for long periods of time. Remember, it’s okay to not be okay, so you can give yourself permission to be sad, but give it a time limit (i.e. a day or a few days, an hour or a few hours). During that time we are allowed to cry, lay in bed, feel sorry for ourselves or mope around. Life is full of challenges and nobody’s happy ALL the time – we are human. After the time is up, we accept that there are things we can not change in life, but we can take the next step or do the next right thing to move past the change or loss that has upset us—remember action signal. Dwelling in it for weeks or months can not only become detrimental to our physical and mental health, but it can also alter our personality. 

Crawley: So, if I have a friend move and I feel sad about it for a while. Then I decide it’s ok. I didn’t lose contact with my friend. Yes, things are different now because she is not physically here. But I can still text, call, and FaceTime whenever I want. So, I feel the sadness, then accept the change, and finally be grateful for the time we had together and continue to enjoy the friendship even though it’s different now. 

Shift In Perspective

Lovett: Yeah. That’s the shift in perspective; an outstanding example of the action signal we were discussing earlier. So, absolutely. If something creates negative emotion, allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is, whether it’s grief, sadness, or rejection, makes it easier for us to eventually accept it and then move on. We are validating the emotion by giving ourselves permission to feel the feelings. It’s kind of like a storm cloud that’s rolling through. You just have to hunker down for a bit, allow it to roll over then past you. Healthy, authentic positivity becomes easier to grasp when we give ourselves permission to feel ALL the feelings. When the timer has gone off, it is then our responsibility to look for the alternative perspective; the brighter side of things, and that will help us heal and move forward. It’s our responsibility to pick up a better story. 

This is where the narrative comes into play. Negative emotion comes and goes physiologically. It’s not meant to stick around or last forever. What causes it to stagnate and perpetuate is when we pick up the stories, the narratives that are reinforcing or justifying the negative emotion. A better choice is to consider the positives that can come from the situation or the healthy change it can signal. 

We can’t have an emotional reaction to something we don’t have a corresponding belief about. We need to step back and objectively look at why this has upset me? What is it I believe that has been triggered by the event? Beginning the process of addressing that, figuring out what the root program is inside of me causing me to feel triggered, is the beginning of a self-awareness journey. We can do this on our own through self-exploration and introspection. The subconscious mind loves questions. We can also talk to friends or maybe hire someone who is trained in this area, like a life coach or a therapist. The goal is to uncover the beliefs and programs that are no longer serving us. Once they’re identified, we can begin the process of breaking those physiological connections warehoused in our nervous system, so we are no longer being held hostage by the habit. 

Write It Out

Crawley: Then it becomes less like toxic positivity by saying to ourselves and others, “Everything is fine or it’s all going to be okay.” But more like, “Yeah, this totally sucks! I dislike not knowing what’s going to happen next and how this pandemic is going to play out in my life 100% sucks!” I have to allow myself to spend time feeling the emotional pain, go for a walk and scream, take a shower and cry, beat my pillows, etc. 

Another thing that helps me is to write it all out. When I feel 20 things weighing heavy on my mind and I feel overwhelmed by it all, the act of getting it out of my head helps tremendously. Looking at it on paper makes it all seem more manageable for me than when I have it all swirling around inside my mind. 

Lovett: Exactly, it’s easier to gain perspective when we get it outside of us by writing it down or speaking it aloud. We become the observer of what we’re experiencing, which creates a healthy, manageable space. When we are identifying with or attaching to the experience rather than observing it, it triggers our survival mechanisms, which make gaining the perspective we need more challenging. 

Crawley: Thank you so much Tharwat for your time today. I have thoroughly enjoyed it! I look forward to implementing some of what we discussed in my daily life and I look forward to our next talk.

If any of you would like to work with a professional, I highly recommend Tharwat Lovett.