It’s okay not to be okay: Going against toxic positivity 

By Erica Bobish, MSW

Lately, the news just feels like one tragedy after another, and I can’t help but cringe when someone tells me to “just stay positive” or “it just is what it is”. While these sayings can be well intentioned, they can also be hurtful to the folks they are directed at, as well as to yourself. These phrases can lean into a harmful mentality called “toxic positivity”. Toxic positivity is more than just general optimism, it is moreso the act of promoting a positive outlook by negating feelings that may be perceived as negative.

Saying things like “look on the bright side” and “it could be worse” teach us that we shouldn’t feel or process negative or tough emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration. Instead those phrases suggest we should ignore those feelings, put on a happy face, and keep pressing on. It is important to stress that adopting a positive outlook or using positive affirmations are not inherently bad skills. However, it is problematic when we set an unrealistic expectation of ourselves and others and don’t allow space for all of our emotions.

Although the term itself is relatively new, the concept of toxic positivity has been a growing cultural phenomenon for quite some time. One example of this is social media, which is where people go for posting their “highlights”, if you will. These are things like engagements, graduations, vacations, et cetera. We often are subconsciously trying to post about how good things are or creating a curated profile for others. When we do this, we aren’t leaving room for ourselves to feel the “bad”.

Some of us caught glimpses or masked versions of toxic positivity growing up when we were told to “grin and bear it” or that “everything happens for a reason”. Again, it may come from a good place when someone says this, but the reality is that we are promoting the overuse of positivity and negating other equally valid emotions. So what are some of the risks of toxic positivity? According to a study done by JJ Gross and RW Levensonsuppressing emotions and feelings can lead to negative consequences, both mentally and physically. Not only do our brains and bodies feel an added layer of stress now, but it can also show up later as anxiety, depression, and sometimes even as physical illnesses.

As previously mentioned, toxic positivity can be dismissive and take away space for other complex emotions. If we aren’t given the space to process emotions such as fear, anger, overwhelm, or hurt, then there is a real possibility that we will never learn how to, or will start using maladaptive coping strategies. Maladaptive coping strategies are often thought of as bad habits or vices, such as drinking or smoking, but can also be more subtle, like being emotionally guarded or isolated.

Another emotion that can manifest in place of our suppressed emotions is shame. For example, if someone were to be told repeatedly that they shouldn’t be sad because “other people have it worse”, they might start to internalize that. This may look like feeling guilty during times of sadness, recalling that comparatively, “it isn’t that bad”. Over time, they likely won’t even register that shame has replaced that feeling of sadness, which has the potential to be deeply internalized and affect self-esteem and relationships with others.

I can’t write this without giving a shoutout to some of my favorite spaces that encourage honest approaches to mental health and give back to the communities of Chicago, which include Sip of Hope and Coffee, Hip-Hop, & Mental Health.These coffee shops often host events and have taken an active stance to promote better, more inclusive, conversations around mental health. Sip of Hope (whose mission I borrowed for my title) is a coffee shop in Logan Square that puts 100% of their proceeds towards suicide prevention and  mental health education. What makes their location unique from any other Dark Matter coffee shop is that all of their baristas are certified in Mental Health First Aid and are trained for crisis intervention. Coffee, Hip-Hop, & Mental Health has been encouraging conversations to challenge and end the stigma around mental health, particularly within Black and Brown communities. Their soon-to-open coffee shop in Lakeview (1051 W. Belmont Ave) will be a permanent location where you can get tasty coffee and pastries, have honest conversations about mental health, and contribute to their mission of offering free therapy to Black and Brown folks.

Unlearning these mindsets of toxic positivity can be challenging, but by no means impossible. The first step is reflecting and recognizing where you find yourself in this. Do you catch yourself brushing off or minimizing your tough emotions? When there’s a difficult situation, do the people around you tell you to “just get over it”, or do they encourage you to express your feelings and talk through it? This self-reflection can be, at times, hard to do, but if you notice that you have a pattern of overly positive talk or a recurring dismissal of certain emotions, the next step is to actively call yourself out when you do it. It can seem silly but if you catch yourself saying something like “oh, but it’s not as bad as it could be” or “but it just is what it is” (which, let’s be honest, is not uncommon to say), stop and remind yourself that it is valid to feel frustrated, annoyed or upset: You’re entitled to feeling these feelings. When you are feeling that way, it may sound something like “I’m feeling down today and I want to listen to my needs” or “this situation is really tough and I need to give myself some time with it”. It’s a process to make these changes, but making a habit of journaling, reflecting, and (no surprise!) therapy can all be great ways to shift this mindset. At the end of the day, we should value progress over perfection, so be patient with yourself and remember: it’s okay not to be okay.

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