Stroll with Nicole

Toxic positivity

Nicole Law says it’s time to tackle our fear of feeling down.

In the last two years of living with the pandemic, most of us have explored new ways of coping with uncertainty and stress. Some of us find solace in sharing our problems with our close friends, perhaps we simply desire a listening ear and a spirit of empathy. 

Yet how many times have we been faced with the following response from a well-meaning friend: “Just stay positive, it’s not all bad!”. On one level, this simple statement appears optimistic, and shouldn’t we be optimistic? Looking at the relative abundance of wealth and opportunity, most of us would seem to have little to complain about. 

Yet, the dismissal of the difficult emotions has led us down the slippery slope of ‘toxic positivity’. Let me be clear … positivity, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, in fact, focussing on the things that are going right in our lives, the simple joys we enjoy every day such as a warm drink before we sleep or a relaxing evening listening to music is a good habit to adopt. 

These little things do indeed take our focus off the challenges that loom over us – those problems that we cannot resolve overnight – whether it be work concerns, relationship issues or even our own deep-seated personal struggles. 

The danger comes when we gloss over the negative emotions – anger, frustration, jealousy, resentment, the list goes on and on, and instead plaster a strained smile on our faces in an act of pretence. 

It is toxic when optimism boils down to sending a grieving friend an emoticon when she shares news about the passing of her close relative.

It is toxic when optimism only amounts to sending motivational messages to friends, without first checking whether they are ready to receive or respond to such messages. It points to a deep lack of awareness of the emotional needs of the people around us and a discomfort in allowing ourselves to process negative emotions. 

Emotions themselves are powerless unless they are accompanied by a change in our actions or perspectives.

We can feel down, dejected and angry, but if we learn to process these emotions in a healthy way, it enables us to develop greater emotional resilience.

If not, these emotions manifest themselves in irritable attitudes towards our loved ones, decisions to close ourselves off to those seeking to understand and help us, and, in serious cases, in violence against ourselves and others. 

In current discourse on mental health, the idea of ‘toxic positivity’ has gained traction and for good reason. We have talked at length about languishing and flourishing, and learning to let go of factors beyond our control – all within the context of a shifting global pandemic. 

But instead of learning to exist (and even grow) within the spectrum of emotion, some of us have resorted to ‘toxic positivity’ and painted even painful situations in bright yellow hues. That connotes ignorance, dismissal and suppression of negative emotions which result in many of us being unable to accurately communicate our emotions with others. 

It’s a form of avoidance mechanism. It is easier to subscribe to the mantra of positivity because it is more comfortable and palatable. The truth is, though, that we need to experience varying degrees of emotions to develop healthy emotional regulation. How does one regulate when one only experiences the highs? 

I once remarked to a friend, when faced with a painful situation, that I did not know ‘what’ I was feeling. I was attempting to pinpoint the exact emotion yet I was drawing a blank. She assured me that it was fine not to know exactly what I was feeling, that often what we feel is a mixture of emotions. 

Emotions are like paints in a palette, they have many shades and hues and when mixed together, sometimes all we feel is a muddy and indiscernible brown.

But to sit with the nameless emotion or colour on our canvas is perfectly ok! The important thing is not to paint thick shades of bright yellow over it in an attempt to mask the brown that is underneath. 

Let’s banish ‘toxic positivity’ in favour of ‘cautious optimism’, knowing full well that it’s normal to have bad days and that by feeling our lows, we will better experience the highs, and in doing so we are setting ourselves up for greater emotional maturity in the long run.

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Nicole Law is a writer for Adamah Media, who writes a column entitled 'Stroll with Nicole'. She is an educator based in sunny Singapore. Her calling is not only to mould young minds, but also to nourish souls through her faith-based podcast. She has a soft spot for burnt cheesecake, Dean Martin and swing dance. When she’s not engaging with her listeners, she’s planning new conversations for her podcast - she believes in the power of conversations and the beauty of our relationships.

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