Why It’s Good to Embrace Negative Feelings
If there is one thing I believe, it is that positivity is powerful. Often, grasping onto even the tiniest shreds of hope during bouts of stress, moments of grief, or the most challenging of situations can get us through to the other side. I, myself, cannot express how comforting it is to know that after undergoing a tough time, the storm will indeed pass, the sky will part to reveal blue clouds, and the sun will shine once more.
Nevertheless, as beneficial positivity is throughout times of crisis, are there downsides to being overly optimistic? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Enter toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity and why is it harmful?
The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the belief that regardless of difficult situations or a person’s emotional pain, people should maintain a positive mindset. It involves focusing solely on positive things and rejecting anything that may provoke negative emotions. All in all, toxic positivity promotes a “good vibes only” approach to life.
Toxic positivity generally manifests itself in 2 different forms:
Toxic positivity you can experience from someone or give to someone.
Toxic positivity you can inflict on yourself.
This type of positivity is incredibly damaging because it denies, minimizes, and invalidates the whole, authentic human emotional experience. In reality, life can be hard, frightening, disappointing, stressful, sad and heartbreaking, sometimes. I do not deny that good things can arise from bad situations because they definitely can. Instead, I am emphasizing that downplaying, disregarding, or dismissing the painful feelings that are an inevitable aspect of our lives is, in truth, to deny the very things that make us human.
With that said, let's explore 3 consequences of toxic positivity with more depth:
1. It invalidates and evokes feelings of guilt.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I feel so bad? Why can’t I deal with it? Others have it much worse.” Well, instead of telling ourselves, “It will all be fine,” or, “It could be worse,” throughout times of difficulty, what our feelings need most is acknowledgment and validation. Therapist Stephanie Moulton Sarkis reminds, “You have a right to feel what you feel, regardless of what others say or how you view your challenges in light of others' suffering. Everyone has challenges; just different ones. Your challenges are a challenge to you, and that makes them valid.”
2. It bottles up emotions.
Imagine negativity as a jar. Whenever we experience negative thoughts or feelings, this jar gets filled a little more each time. If we continuously ignore the container, it will gradually fill and build pressure. It can only hold these mounting emotions for so long, and there will come a time where eventually everything becomes too much to handle, and the lid bursts. When this happens, all of the pent-up emotions will spill, run free, or choose to manifest themselves later in scarier ways, often affecting our health, relationships, and our lives for the worse. As seen, what we resist persists. The more we avoid our feelings and push them down, the bigger they will become. Additionally, by bottling up what we must express instead, we reinforce the idea that hiding what we feel is okay. In reality, it is not. Doing so establishes a destructive cycle that almost always leaves our unprocessed emotions more damaged and difficult to fix than before.
3. It prevents growth.
Despite how uncomfortable they may be, emotions such as regret, fear, and sadness provide us with the opportunity to complete inner reflection, grow from our mistakes, and gain a broader insight. When we use past experiences to build resilience, we improve our ability to cope with similar situations in the future. As always, moving forward requires facing our feelings, recognizing them, and choosing to accept them for what they are.
So, what are healthier alternatives?
First, feel your feelings and be true to them. Experts have found that fully feeling our emotions causes them to loosen their grip on us. Additionally, labelling and claiming them as emotions we are feeling but not who we are works wonders. For example, in place of saying, “I am sad right now,” say, “I’m feeling sad right now.” The differences between these two sentences are slight in appearance but tremendous in their effect. It represents that emotions are things we feel, never who we are. Ultimately, avoiding or rejecting uncomfortable emotions makes us hostage to them. Allowing ourselves to experience all of our feelings entirely, however, is what sets us free.
Next, strive to validate not only the feelings of others, but validate the struggles you yourself experience. At its most basic, validation is the act of making someone feel heard and understood. It doesn't necessarily mean agreeing or approving, but it is a way of communicating acceptance. For instance, when a best friend makes a decision we may not think is reasonable, validation is a way of recognizing their thoughts, feelings, and decisions as understandable, even though we may hold a different opinion to theirs.
Here are some great examples:
In closing, a wise woman once said, “Being fully present to life’s harsh realities while having hope for a positive future are not mutually exclusive. We can honour our negative emotions without abandoning optimism.” Remember, the harsher, more painful emotions we encounter are just as beneficial and essential to thriving as the positive ones are. In the end, real positivity is about embracing and being with all our emotions but not letting them have power over us. That, my friends, is the ultimate form of acceptance.