Today I’m going to talk about toxic positivity. And you may have heard that phrase before. There’s a lot of focus on positivity and motivation out there right now, and that’s really good. I do the same thing in this podcast.
Positive mindset, building up the most motivation you can, and being as positive as you can is really emphasized right now in social media, books, podcasts and just in general. That’s great but sometimes it can go too far. While it’s good to work on a positive mindset and it’s really good to know how your brain works so that you can work with that negativity when it comes along, it doesn’t mean that you should ignore those feelings when they’re hard – and it doesn’t mean that you should ignore even the days that are hard because sometimes we have more than a few minutes. Life is hard and sometimes you’re going to have a bad few days.
Toxic positivity is where the positive is overemphasized and there’s a dismissal of essentially anything negative. It minimizes your reality and negatively impacts your mood and wellbeing. In fact, there’s been studies to indicate this, so it has no positive effects whatsoever. If you feel like you should be positive all the time, not only is that unrealistic and harmful, but you’re probably going to end up feeling guilty, feeling like you’ve failed somehow, that you don’t have what it takes and you might even feel shame – but you’re definitely going to feel weak and subpar.
When you have some tough feelings and emotions, the first thing you want to do is start by acknowledging and making space for them. Have some compassion for yourself. When those days or moments, probably days, find their way to your doorstep, just accept them. Have some empathy for yourself. Don’t judge yourself and welcome the feelings even though you don’t want them there. That doesn’t mean you’re going to dwell on them. It doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there for a week or drop your anchor there. It’s simply acknowledging your reality.
Absorb the impact of the feeling and give yourself a break but stay in motion. That’s really important. You don’t want to stop your routine. You want to stay focused, get things done, keep your habits in place, and keep your routine going. Now, if you have a crisis or something huge happens in your life, that’s a little different. I’m talking about the day to day.
The second thing you want to do is explore those feelings. Why are they there? Where did they come from and what are they about? You’ve got to look at your feelings and figure out what they’re trying to tell you because they always have something to tell you. Sometimes you want to listen to them and sometimes you don’t, but negative emotions or feelings can tell you something sort of like a physical wound can. When we hurt physically, we’ve got to figure out why, and then we can treat it. As the saying goes, you don’t just want to put a Band-Aid on it.
There’s two sources of negative feelings or negative emotions – the founded or unfounded, or if you want to say legitimate and illegitimate. I’m not saying that the feeling itself is illegitimate. A feeling is a feeling. It’s neither right nor wrong. I’m talking about the source or what is giving rise to the feeling that can be founded or unfounded – legitimate or illegitimate. Some feelings have a legitimate cause; let’s say that you failed at something. You set out to do something and it didn’t work out. I don’t use the word failure in a negative way like it’s often used, but you just didn’t get it. You didn’t get what you set out to do or your partner cheated on you or a friend betrayed you. You didn’t get the promotion. You wanted it to work. There’s some kind of a disappointment. Those are all good reasons to feel bad, so, you want to give them a little bit of time and a little bit of space to allow them to express themselves. Like I said, you don’t drop your anchor there. You don’t wallow in it, but you acknowledge that something happened, and you feel bad.
The unfounded or illegitimate reasons for negative emotions are usually when our brain is acting up so to speak. If you’ve listened to some of my other episodes, you’ll know more about worry and anxiety or that negative outlook. You’ll know a bit more about where that stuff comes from because the brain – it’s there to keep us alive. It scans for danger, but it needs to be squelched a lot of the times because the brain can find some remote possibility in the future, and it thinks it’s going to happen. So, you’re going to be anxious and you’re going to have this unreasonable worry and anxiety about the future. Again, studies have indicated that about 95% of our worries are not going to come to fruition. They’re never going to happen. It’s all this wasted energy in our head. We’re all prone to do it. Just knowing how to work with it, you’re so ahead of the game when you know what happens in your head, why it happens and what you can do about it.
Another cause of illegitimate emotional discomfort is from inaccurate core beliefs that we hold about ourselves. A couple of common core beliefs are that you’re not good enough or you’re not lovable. And so, you can see if that’s always the basic operating system in the background that leads to feeling incapable, to sadness, to hopelessness, and a whole lot more. After you’ve figured out where those tough feelings are coming from and whether you know if they’re valid or not, then you can know what to do with them.
If it’s the brain just acting up, you can work with those automatic negative thoughts and start to rewire your brain by replacing the negative thinking with more rational and positive thinking. This is the foundation of neuroplasticity, and it’s where you can rewire your brain to create new and different neural connections leading to less sadness, less worry, and less emotional discomfort. It takes a lot of time, though. That’s why it’s so important to know this stuff and work with it every time one of these days or part of a day comes along where you’re just feeling crappy. When it comes to the brain, the old saying is what fires together wires together.
If you know that the source of the feeling is not legitimate, then you want to get to work on that right away. Replace those automatic negative thoughts with positive thoughts that are grounded in reality. And when you work, when you begin to work on replacing the negative thoughts with the positive ones, you strengthen your ability to field the balls that your brain’s going to throw at you. In the future, you’ll get better and better and lose way less time feeling bad and getting pulled down from what you want to do in life – it’s going to free you up.
Now, if it’s a real loss, a disappointment, or a tough circumstance such as betrayal or a breakup where it’s valid, then give the feelings a little time and listen to them. You need them to work on you a bit and they need to do their thing. Reflect on the experience and learn from it. Whatever the negative experience was, there’s something to learn and there’s something to take from it. Sometimes it’s something that you participated in, and you’ll get a little bit wiser knowing what you did or what you didn’t do at least partially contributed to the way you feel. But sometimes it’s just a loss. And if it’s loss or grief that you didn’t play a part in because sometimes life just kind of works us over a little bit, that’s also going to give way to a different kind of gift.
You’ve got to give it time, and it’s hard to believe when something just happens after you gave it your all. It’s hard to believe that it’s going to produce anything positive. And that’s where faith comes in, but you need to just give it time. By stepping back and learning about what our part was, or if we didn’t have a part, just learning what will come out of our tough experience. That’s where resiliency lives. Resiliency isn’t an absence of feeling or not being affected by some experience. That attitude is toxic positivity.
Being resilient is learning from your experience and working yourself through or around the problem. It’s getting a little wiser and taking those lessons into your future. It’s not being a victim but finding some utility in every one of our life experiences and circumstances, even if it’s hard. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot easier than not learning how to be resilient, getting pushed around by life, and having life’s negative effects snowball over and over and then down the road just dulling everything in it that’ll make you and keep you small. The lessons, the resiliency, the adaptability, that’s where the good stuff takes root and that’s where the best parts of you are going to take hold and grow.
So, the next time you start to get down on yourself because you’re feeling bad or just having a bad day or someone or some message tries to tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling down at all and that you’re weak if you are – keep in mind what I’ve said. Make sure you’ve given those feelings some space though, and don’t be a victim of your own toxic positivity mindset. To recap, when you’re having some tough feelings come your way, give your emotions the space to just show up. Let them in. Second, figure out where they’ve come from. Are they founded or unfounded, legitimate, not legitimate. What’s the source? Third, if they’re unfounded, use your tools to reframe the situation and rework your pattern of thinking. If the cause is legitimate and you’ve had a loss or disappointment, then acknowledge it. Give it and yourself some time. There will be a gift down the road. And remember to stay in motion and keep your routine and habits going. If you stop, you’re just going to make things worse. Fourth, remember this is how you bring about resiliency and wisdom. This is when you start to get more grit and get more and more wise, stronger, and better for the stuff that your future’s going to bring your way. You’re going to help bring a lot more positive your way as well.
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re weak if you encounter some tough feelings. Don’t buy into the toxic positivity. Unfortunately, there’s too much of that stuff out there. Use those tough emotions for all they’re worth. You can’t snap your fingers and prevent them from showing up, because they’re going to find their way to you. What you can do is choose what you do with them. Just don’t judge yourself for being human and sometimes having a bad day because something happened. Also, don’t indulge them, but be intentional and diligent in how you work with them. Those hard feelings are worth more than you know, thank goodness, because at least we get something back from them and we get something back from the tough experience. You’re worth more than you might know. Although they’re uncomfortable, these negative and tough feelings can help you out. The better you get at managing them, the less impact they’re going to have on you and on your future when they unexpectedly show up. You got this.