Negative emotions don’t feel good. That’s kind of the point, because we have negative emotions to tell us that something is wrong, and to alert us to our need to protect ourselves, grieve, or change our situation in some way. But they feel bad, and so there’s often a temptation to suppress them.
Toxic positivity is when people tell themselves that they aren’t really feeling bad, or that only positive vibes are allowed. These are the kind of people who post positive memes on Instagram or Facebook, while secretly feeling terrible.
It’s toxic when we tell ourselves that we should always ‘be positive’ because the feelings don’t go away because we’re denying them. Instead they build up underneath, ready to come squirting out at a later date or time.
It’s also toxic when we tell other people to ‘cheer up’, ‘look on the bright side’ ‘ think of someone worse off than yourself’ because that tells people that they won’t be accepted if they show the world anything but positivity.
All this does, in the memorable phrase of an excellent counsellor I know is to pour pink icing on top of sh*t.
Having said all that, I think it is also possible to go too far the other way and tip into toxic negativity. I’m not talking about even a prolonged period of depression or grief, which may be something that we all have to go through at times, but about a generally negative outlook on life.
If someone always expects the worst and always sees themselves as the victim of what life throws at them, that isn’t a healthy balanced place to be either. It can make us difficult to be around, and can lead to us actually subconsciously setting ourselves up for failure.
Finding the middle ground
So, what’s the middle ground? Firstly, I think we need to recognise that we won’t always feel good, and that bad things happen. When we feel bad, we need to acknowledge that, and look after ourselves as tenderly as we can. We can see our negative emotions as a signal that we need love, self-love most importantly.
When we truly listen to our negative emotions, they quite often (if not always) dissipate, having achieved what they were created for.
However, listening to our emotions is not the same thing as identifying with them. Once we start to tell ourselves stories about how ‘this always happens to me’, ‘there’s something wrong with me’, ‘things will always feel like this’ and so on, then we’re moving away from a healthy processing of emotion into creating more pain for ourselves.
The key is to listen to the emotion, but not attach to it. You are not your thoughts and you’re not your emotions either.