There’s a pandemic of relentless positivity going around, with social media awash with happiness quotes meant to inspire and uplift.
After all happiness, calm, joy, peace, gratitude and contentment are all preferable conditions that we aspire to be living in more often than not. They are higher vibrational states, and who doesn’t want those?
But what happens when the excrement hits the fan, the rug is pulled out from under and the world comes crashing down? Have you ever been in this state only to have someone spout unhelpful platitudes? Have you ever done that to someone else?
“Just think happy thoughts” makes me want to scream and gag in equal measure.
It can be a well-meaning attempt by someone who’s uncomfortable about their feelings because they’ve never learned to accept them. It is their way of trying to lift you out of your lower vibrational state and shifting out of their own discomfort at the same time.
The Poison of Toxic Positivity Psychology
They are engaging in what has been coined “Toxic Positivity”. Here’s a definition from a fabulous article in verywell mind.
Toxic positivity psychology is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. Source
The article covers such things as the Signs of TP, including ‘reciting positive quotes about hard situations’ and ‘feeling guilty about so-called negative emotions.
The FORMS of TP are many and varied, including being told that ‘happiness is a choice. It explains why it’s harmful, including avoiding authentic human emotion and has tips on how to avoid TP, including being realistic about what you should feel.
I can definitely relate to this, as for many years I didn’t really know how I felt about things and had no role models for accepting all of my emotions.
My family was masters of deflection, repression, suppression, avoidance, and any other tactic you can think of to avoid difficult feelings. After all, no one taught THEM how to process their emotions as children either!
Astounded by the crying
I recall going to a counselor when I was totally surprised and befuddled about why my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking when my Dad was failing towards the end of his life! I didn’t know I was experiencing what he called ‘anticipatory grief’.
I think I may have said something like, “I don’t know what’s going on; why I can’t stop crying.” What he said was like a lightning bolt of gentleness to that part that was feeling guilty about having such strong emotions: “You’re losing your DAD.”
He didn’t even say, “It will pass.” He gave me permission to be exactly where I was with the grief.
The article in Verywell Mind does the same thing; examines some toxic statements (“It could be worse”) and offers non-toxic alternatives to practice. (“Sometimes bad things happen. How can I help?”)
Dipti Pande’s wonderful article about TP’s effect on mental illness has a whole paragraph of these maddening ‘brightening up’ statements! She follows it up with the many ways that feelings can be validated instead of shamed.
Don’t go straight to Happiness
Yes, we’ve all had enough life experience by now to know that “This too shall pass” and that we will get through difficult times. But these days I prefer to NOT skip over the emotional charge that’s needing release. Even though I wasn’t taught this in the past, I always have the choice to teach myself a new way of being NOW.
Basically, I give myself a break!
I prefer to gently welcome sadness, grief, and all of the so-called negative emotions. I try to open up space around it, snuggle under the doona, breathe into it and let it all wash through me without trying to analyze or think it through.
I hold space in this way for my clients as well.
Let’s stop the duality
In this way, I can re-parent myself, give permission to the inner child to feel all that was outlawed in the past, and normalize all emotions as authentic and valid parts of the human experience. Sadness becomes neither negative nor positive.
If the sadness isn’t allowed to empty out, it stays stuffed down as a ball of energy just waiting to be triggered again and again. Enforced happiness, putting on a brave face, seeing the bright side, and even ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ become hastily-pasted wallpaper over the cracks.
Funnily enough, my experience has been that the very act of releasing the sadness allows the states of peace and contentment to follow sooner or later. But this time it’s a solid integration that’s taken place.
I quickly or eventually reclaim happiness that is like a steady groundswell of my true nature. If there’s another wave of sadness, it can be welcomed into my open arms and held with gentleness and compassion.
Barbara Cook is an Australian author and Awareness Facilitator, whose various modalities help people turn their “stuck” places into opportunities for growth.
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