Updated: Jul 8
Many of us would rather have our toenails pulled out than fully feel our “negative” feelings like sadness, anger, anxiety or fear. But what’s the cost of living like this?
We hear a lot of talk right now about “staying positive in these difficult times” and “not letting the [insert any of the 101 current calamities] drag you down.” But amid our fervent efforts to see the glass as half full, we may have drunk a little too much of the glass’s Kool-Aid. Because—like too much of anything—even positivity can turn harmful. And there’s a name for it, too: what psychologists term “toxic positivity.”
In short, toxic positivity is the insincere refusal to feel (or even acknowledge) negative emotions. Sure, we don’t hesitate to blast out a string of negative emojis in our smartphone communications—from the devil-horned angry face to the tear-stained crying face to the horror-stricken screaming face. But what about our actual faces? Do we ever feel the feelings beneath those emojis, or do we just plaster on a fake smile?
"Sure, we don’t hesitate to blast out a string of negative emojis…. But what about our actual faces? Do we ever feel the feelings beneath those emojis?"
Ever since I started studying New Age philosophy—an arena that, in my opinion, is rife with teachings that get misinterpreted as promoting toxic positivity—this issue has stuck in my craw. Too many times, I’ve watched as spiritual seekers unwittingly applied toxic positivity as a stopgap remedy for dealing with any less-than-pleasant feelings, or as a ploy to fast-track enlightenment. It’s also bothered me on a very personal level, because as someone with chronic health issues and a considerable trauma history, I’ve often found myself on the receiving end of these well-meaning people’s judgment for (gasp!) having a bad day or (double gasp!) struggling through some darker moments on my road to healing.
In the broader scope of things, particularly in times of true crisis like these—where, by some estimates, a whopping two-thirds of us are grappling with our mental health on some level—telling ourselves to stay positive all the time negates the very real, very human concerns and anguish we face, and provides them no outlet for release.
A Lesson on Suppressed Emotions from None Other Than My A/C Repairman
Despite knowing and teaching all this, I must admit that I occasionally continue to lapse into toxic positivity myself, apparently because I’m an amnesic glutton for punishment (cue the emoji of the monkey covering her eyes).
I got a stark reminder of this recently, when my air conditioning conked out on the hottest day of the year. Seeing as I (a) live in a desert climate where summer weather routinely tops 100 degrees, (b) reside in a home that’s moronically designed like a greenhouse, and (c) possess an impertinent body that can’t tolerate temperatures above 80 degrees, I wasted no time in calling a repair crew.
Luckily, they were able to come out the very next day. Less than luckily, the technicians couldn’t diagnose the problem, even after half a day of tinkering.
Normally, I like to think of myself as a rather patient and pleasant person. But as the stagnant indoor temperature climbed to a near-suffocating 90 degrees, as my home office chair’s bucket seat transformed into a wading pool and as my dog continued to bark her brains out at the crew for going on five hours, I started to lose my shit.
Seething frustration swirled beneath the surface, all but demanding to be let out. So, what did I do? I shoved it right back down like any sensible person. Or, rather, I’ll blame it on my Inner Critic, since she’s the one who technically did the shoving.
My Inner Critic wouldn’t let me feel my anger because of toxic positivity’s pesky associates, The Shoulds, who never seem to leave me alone. Like stern Catholic schoolteachers, they’ve always got one eye on me. So, they didn’t hesitate that day to swoop in with their wooden paddles and disappointed frowns, chastising: You should be grateful that a crew was even available today.... You should stay calm and not lose your cool because that doesn't help matters…. You should be lucky just to have air conditioning altogether!
My Inner Critic wouldn't let me feel my anger because of toxic positivity's pesky associates, The Shoulds.
Just as they’d finished should-ing all over me, the technician triumphantly announced, “Ma’am, we finally figured it out!” Had I not been conserving my oxygen by then, I would’ve breathed the biggest sigh of relief. (I also probably would’ve hugged the guy had he not called me “ma’am”.)
In any case, they discovered the cause of the breakdown when they noticed that I kept many of my vents closed in the less-used areas of the house (which I’d done to conserve the cool air for the parts that needed it). Twice, the technician tried to explain to me the problem with this—something to do with condenser coils and restricted air flow which flew right over my dense head—so I asked for the dumbed down version. “Listen lady,” he patiently sighed. “You can’t keep some of your vents closed. When you do that, it puts too much pressure on the A/C system, because it’s pumping out all this air, but then it has nowhere to go, so it backs up—.”
“Whoa! Hold up! Lightbulb moment!” I interrupted excitedly. “That’s exactly what I did with my emotions!”
As this writer rushed off to the next room to grab a pen and paper, I left the bewildered technician standing there, likely thinking I was now not only a nitwit but a nutcase. Meanwhile, in the other room, I furiously scrawled: If you don’t keep enough of your vents open, air can’t flow through evenly, and it eventually breaks the system. >> Is that a brilliant analogy for what we do with our negative emotions or what?!
Locking the Gorilla in the Closet
Indeed, when it comes to uncomfortable feelings—certainly our everyday emotions, but especially our deep-seated or less socially acceptable feelings like shame, rage or grief—many of us don’t want to touch them with a 10-foot pole. Or, we well-intentionally slap on toxic positivity’s perma-grin. Either way, we “close the vents”—preventing these feelings from literally getting vented out.
One of the tragic flaws of such an approach is this: what we think of as emotions are actually energy, and energy that’s in motion, at that (“e-motion,” anyone?). So, by definition, emotions need to move. Ergo, much like shutting my vents against the air’s energy didn’t stop its force, shutting down our emotional energies doesn’t make them magically disappear; it just builds them up beneath the surface. In the long run, this is like discovering an 800-pound gorilla inside your home when you’re about to host a dinner party, coaxing it into a closet and then carrying on with the affair, expecting it to be a quiet and uneventful evening.
"By definition, emotions need to move."
On top of this, suppressing energy requires an enormous amount of energy itself. Similar to the carnival game Whac-A-Mole, every time one of those nasty critters pops up from its hole, we must harness all of our strength to bash it back down with a mallet. And pounding a mallet for years let alone decades can take it out of a person. Never mind that our bodies are the ones enduring the bashing.
Then, of course, we expect our systems to keep functioning as per usual despite all that vent-shutting and mallet-bashing. This can be especially hazardous to our health seeing as we are mind-body systems, wherein what affects one affects the other. Yet, since all this operates below the radar (at least until we become conscious of it), it’s tough to make the connection. So, we overload our system with suppressed emotions but then scratch our heads when we come down with unexplained back pain…. Or when we start experiencing insomnia or anxiety symptoms…. Or when our kids whiningly ask for the third time if dinner’s ready and we turn into the demonic spinning head from The Exorcist.
Even Western medicine is finally coming around to the mind-body reality, with the NIH estimating that as much as 90 percent of all disease conditions are stress-related.* And many mind-body practitioners assert that the root cause of chronic stress is—ding, ding, ding—suppressing our emotions and the accompanying physical energy they generate. Meaning, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t so much the stress, but the failure to express it.
"The NIH estimates that as much as 90 percent of all disease conditions are stress-related.… [And] at least in some cases, the problem isn’t so much the stress, but the failure to express it."
Give Yourself Permission to Feel
Even if you’re chomping at the bit to express your negative feelings, you may run into an invisible roadblock. A lot of us subconsciously harbor the belief that it’s not safe to feel our difficult emotions. In fact, we may fear that if we really let ourselves feel such feelings, we’ll fall apart.
Now, in certain cases—say, if you’re trying to heal from major trauma or deep-rooted issues—it’s prudent to be delicate about that process. Generally speaking, however, it’s a fallacy that if we feel we’ll fall apart. In fact, as we learned from my sage A/C repairman, it’s just the opposite. We don’t fall apart when we feel. We fall apart when we don’t. Because choosing not to feel is kind of like dropping a tarp over a volcano. Sure, it covers up a mountain of fiery, frothing magma, but sooner or later that sucker’s gonna blow.
In my own life, I certainly sat on a volcano of pain and stress, all while forcing myself to be positive and then wondering why it wasn’t doing diddly-squat. I had to learn the hard way that authentic positivity requires—shocker—authenticity. In other words, before we can be positive in a genuine and constructive way, we have to be real. Because our feigned smile might fool our next-door neighbor or even our partner, but the Universe can smell bullshit from a galaxy away.
"Before we can be positive in a genuine and constructive way, we have to be real."
This goes double for survivors of trauma. Understandably, the last thing we want is to feel the pain we pushed down to survive, but as spiritual teacher Kim Eng cautions: “It has to be felt. You didn’t feel it back then, so don’t think you’re going to get away with not feeling it now....The only way out is through.”* Of course, this doesn’t always stop me from trying to outrun or outsmart my pain, but, like I said, I’m an amnesic glutton for punishment, so do as I say, not as I do.
Lastly, I might argue that toxic positivity goes against nature itself. If you look around the natural world (which includes we humans!), it’s all about balance. An excess of even “positive” things—whether that’s exercise for our bodies or rain for droughted land—can upset (if not overturn) the apple cart. Accordingly, it’s healthy positivity we’re after, not its toxic, obsessive cousin.
So, give yourself a break, and then give yourself permission to feel. Especially in today’s times, when there’s an endless list of reasons to feel overwhelmed, nervous, angry, lonely, scared or downright depressed. As a psychiatrist in a recent Health magazine article wisely advised: “Be positive when you can be, but make room for days when you can’t.”*
© Lisa Berzack, 2020.
Lisa Berzack is an inspirational writer, speaker and teacher devoted to helping people (including herself) find inner healing and live a more empowered, awakened life. She is also the author of a forthcoming self-help memoir. To read more of Lisa's work, see her upcoming events or work with her privately, visit www.PainIntoPower.com.
1 Yun-Zi Liu, Yun-Xia Wang, and Chun-Lei Jiang, “Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, (June 20, 2017), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/
2 Kim Eng, “What Causes Physical Pain,” Eckhart Tolle YouTube channel, (November 12, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtRaBEhNWgE, 4:18-4:25, 5:25-5:29.
3 Margaret Seide, MD, Interview with Claire Gillespie, “What is Toxic Positivity—and Why Are Experts Saying It’s Dangerous Right Now?”, Health Magazine (Des Moines, Meredith Corporation, May 22, 2020), https://www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/what-is-toxic-positivity