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Toxic Positivity

I know we are not meant to play favourites when it comes to emotions, but I do love joy. Fear, anger, sadness, surprise and disgust are so much harder to hold a space for, and our attempts to escape them, surrender to them, or simply manage them can overwhelm us during difficult times.

That said, you’ll never hear me tell you to “just think positive.” While thinking positive can sometimes reset our moods, when our emotions intensify, pep talks are no match for the vortex of worry, judgment, criticism, and grief. And then – on top of everything else – we feel guilty, for not being more positive and in control!

Emotions versus positivity and negativity

Emotions are a non-negotiable part of being human. Whitewashing our challenging feelings in “positivity” undermines the authenticity, value and purpose of some of those more difficult emotions. In a similar manner, when we attempt to offload our more difficult feelings into negativity and bitterness towards the world and others, we allow those emotions to hijack us and limit our ability to take care of ourselves and connect to others.

We need to think outside the binary confines of “positive” and “negative” and focus more on how we can best work with whatever emotional state is present. Disappointment and uncertainty abound, that is all but assured. Can we find ways to respond to the vagaries of life with more openness, less pessimism, and increased engagement?

I believe we can, and here are three alternatives to “positive thinking” to consider.

1. “Act as if.”

“Acting as if” is different from “fake it ‘till you make it.”  It must be motivated by the belief that, somewhere beneath the self-doubt and the critical commentary, lies a courageous and open version of yourself. If you were the person you wanted to be in this situation, how would you play it?

Act as if…you are capable of facing challenges.

Start with the simplest and most available tool: your body. Research into the mind and body connection demonstrates that even by adjusting our posture from a collapsed, slumped over state – a natural reflection of discouragement – to one that is more expansive and uplifted can bolster confidence and self-worth. Regardless of how you are feeling to start off with, simple adjustments in your body can help set the tone for more openness and self-respect. Similarly, unclenching your fists and jaw, while loosening shoulders can dial down that ‘poised for battle’ feeling. Our bodies are always a few steps ahead of us.

Act as if…others cannot crush you.

Our negativity can easily be directed towards others, as well. From our threatened or insecure state, we can become inclined to gossip about, criticise and avoid others. Remember that when we feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, and our resources go into self-protection. We feel anything BUT grounded. Taking calming breaths (to regulate our anxiety) and acting as if I feel secure and worthy might help me to acquire a different stance toward the people that push my buttons. No doubt there is more personal work to be done in the fraught area of interpersonal reactivity, but acting as if can provide us with an alternative to unhelpful defensive responses.

It’s been long established that emotions can cause behaviour (i.e. sadness can cause us to lie in bed all day; anxiety leads us to avoid). But behaviours can also influence emotion. Waiting until you are in the right mood to act proactively and constructively can be a bit of a setup. “Acting as if” is a leap of faith that puts the cart before the horse.

2. Practice self-encouragement

Did I mention that “acting as if” will be really hard if, in your head, there is an ongoing discouraging commentary yammering away at you?

That ongoing commentary can be pretty harsh. It talks us out of things that carry a risk of failure (“why even bother…”) and obsesses over our missteps. When self-critical or fear-laden thoughts are really ramped up, positive platitudes are about as effective extinguishers as spitting on your kitchen fire.

What self-encouragement sounds like

I like to respond to, rather than extinguish that harsh self-talk. The critical and harsh commentary in your head will hold you as a captive audience unless a kind and encouraging voice of reason interrupts its monologue. Let’s say I was feeling anxious and insecure, dreading an upcoming social event, and talking myself out of going. An encouraging commentary goes something like this: “…ah, there I go, assuming the worst. It’s so easy to get sucked into that way of thinking, isn’t it? Maybe I could give this party a chance and see what happens. I’ve had enough of feeling lonely, and I really want to have more friends and support. Once I warm up, I often have good conversations with people.”

The essential ingredients of self-encouragement are: we acknowledge our discouraging narrative (ironically, by naming it, we reduce its power); our tone (yes, we can have tones, even inside our head) is kind; we actively support and embolden ourselves to face a perceived challenge.

3. Practise self-compassion

And then, there are those times in which we feel truly broken by the world. We hurt too much to take action (just yet), and we feel consumed by our painful feelings. Trying to snap out of this by thinking positive feels inauthentic, and doesn’t really work, anyway.

Care about your pain

Self-compassion means that we not only acknowledge our pain, but that we care deeply about ourselves and our well being. If this feels counter-intuitive to you, it might be because you were raised with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, or see your vulnerability as a sign of weakness. This response is normal, but perpetuates suffering even more.

Dr. Kristin Neff, acclaimed researcher on self-compassion, indicates that “self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”

What self-compassion feels like

I think it’s helpful to start by acknowledging and naming the most palpable emotion we are noticing, and turn toward ourselves with the same compassion we would naturally have for a loved one who was suffering. This might seem simple; in fact, it’s quite radical. We often judge our feelings or invalidate them by turning away from them and attempting to blunt them. Naming the emotion doesn’t make it hurt more, it just acknowledges it. A visceral gesture, such as placing a steady hand on your chest, can help us connect with ourselves, rather than disconnect. A validating check-in with yourself (“ouch…this really hurts”) then invites us to allow our vulnerable emotions to have our attention. Only then can we engage in self-compassion, and consider how best to cope. You might ask yourself, “what do I need right now, to help me through this?

Of course, by all means, think positive –  when you can and when it works. But when your flagging spirits prove to be more powerful than the brightest thoughts you can muster up, try the above strategies instead. And if your emotions and the realities of your life override these strategies, please reach out for help.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.