There is a movement that has emerged against toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is one kind of dictatorship over feelings. It is a disregard for (or stifling of) grief, pain, depression or a myriad of other emotions that are often labeled as negative. These emotions are judged as useless or even damaging because they don’t fit our narrow definition of positivity. The movement has gained momentum as the entire world has been catapulted into some version of collective and simultaneous isolating grief.
A defining feature of grief is the shattering of the assumptive world.
The assumptive world is the reality in which we function and assume the basic stability within our lives will remain day to day. We assume we will wake in the morning. We assume our car will safely get us to work. We assume that when we return from work our loved ones will be there and our home will be standing. Or perhaps more pointedly, we assume that when we breathe common air that we’re not a deadly risk to the person next to us or vice versa. This assumptive world permits us to continue to function without constantly being in a state of paralysis or fear of what could be looming. Our assumptive world is shattered when that which we assumed was stable collapses.
Grief is personal and unique.
We have all experienced loss in this pandemic. Toxic positivity is a symptom of our discomfort with holding space for ourselves and others within the frame work of grief and discomfort. It often manifests in misplaced guidance from loved ones or even ourselves in pleas to “Just be grateful.”, “Make 2020 your best year.” or to simply “Buck up.”. This reaction starves out room for grief and seeks to skip over less optimum emotions. It minimizes and invalidates the loss of others by pleading that one ignore the negative and just look at the good. The insinuation being that to feel grief and loss is to “wallow in self-pity” and denies the possibility of holding space for grief and gratitude at the same time.
Positivity becomes toxic when it denies space or access to the spectrum of emotions and experiences.
The denial of our feelings is the breeding ground for self-destruction. It is an attempt to extinguish something within ourselves that is crying out to be heard. Eventually, our core being will always win that battle, whether by our surrender and release to the truth within or by our very messy nervous breakdown as the truth claws its way to the surface. We don’t get to skip feelings. Toxic positivity argues everything’s great when our entire being is crying out to have its pain acknowledged. It suggests shame under its breath when we’re not continually baptizing ourselves in everything there is to be grateful for.
Our practice becomes to hold space for both our gratitude and our pain.
This is where the movement against toxic positivity gets tricky. I recently heard a speaker and author I deeply respect talk at length about the movement and proclaim that the notion that anyone would make it out of this year better off than when it began was completely ludicrous. She went on to shame anyone that would have the gall to suggest anything beyond merely surviving the year. This is just a different kind of dictatorship of emotion – choosing for others how they will feel and experience. It is absolutism that there is only one correct way to feel and experience. Therefore, proving itself toxic by nature.
The path to our healing is lit by our constant internal curiosity.
Healing is in a dialogue with ourselves that gently, lovingly states, “I am here. I am listening. I love you.” It’s a mantra, endless and open where all of our feelings are welcome. It’s self-compassion that’s ready to admit “This is hard.” going hand in hand with our attentiveness to delight and joy that is always budding at some surface in our inner landscape.
Curiously we ask what serves us in our thoughts, actions and in that which is directed at us from the outside world. That which doesn’t serve us, we gently thank for wanting to protect us (because that is the ambition of all pain and fear). We give it space to say its piece (because there is value in every feeling and this is how an emotion is disarmed). Then, we release.
The movement against toxic positivity need only be an acknowledgement of that which no longer serves our highest good and within that acknowledgement we grow one step closer to our truest selves. We grow one step closer to the balance we crave.