“To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature.”
Life is never meant to be kittens and rainbows. A good portion of our life is going to sadness, disappointment, and failure. In this episode, I want to talk about how being too positive can actually be bad for you.
One of the interesting topics I’ve been hearing about over the past few months is the idea of toxic positivity and interestingly enough, I’ve heard stoicism mentioned in the same breath. This was a bit perplexing for me, because I don’t see stoicism as something that ignores the challenges in life and pretends they aren’t there. In fact, for me, stoicism is about trying to see and accept reality as it actually is, which makes it easier to manage life. But as I read a bit more on this, I can see why some stoic principles can be misrepresented in such a way that they encourage toxic positivity.
What’s So Bad a Being Positive?
First of all, what is toxic positivity? It’s the idea that you should only think positive thoughts and not let yourself think negative thoughts or emotions. Often we do this and project a positive image, even when we don’t feel positive. Basically, it’s emotional repression. It’s not allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and it discounts what other people are feeling as well. It comes across as inauthentic and fake. According to Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and Associate Teaching Professor at University of Washington, “Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them.”
While there is nothing wrong with trying to see the positive side of things, toxic positivity is about suppressing the darker side of life. It’s about ignoring reality, and pretending that everything is just fine. And the thing is, life is not always happy. There is going to be sadness, heartbreak, failure, and all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. In fact, in my experience, when I try to avoid negative feelings, my life is often harder and causes more issue than if I just learned how to deal with them.
So how does stoicism get warped to support this idea of toxic positivity?
I think the biggest problem is that the term stoic has come to mean someone that doesn’t feel emotions, that they repress their emotions. I think this has done a great disservice to stoicism as a whole because it’s not about turning off your feelings. We all feel emotions, but a stoic works to acknowledge those emotions, and to take a moment in between what they feel, and decide how they want to respond, rather than just react. And because of that practice, the person managing their emotions doesn’t react in a way that most people would. They take their time to slow down, see how they feel, process those emotions, and decide how they want to respond in a situation.
Toxic positivity means that people will simply ignore how they feel in a situation for a number of reasons. Maybe they don’t want to upset others, or they find it challenging to sit with uncomfortable emotions. Maybe they grew up in a family where they were to repress darker emotions and to put on a happy face. Toxic positivity is just another way of pushing away uncomfortable emotions from ourselves or others with a fake smile.
I think that this is really the opposite of stoicism. For me, stoicism is about being in touch with how you feel about things. It’s being exceptionally aware of your emotions, how your body feels, your gut instinct. It’s not about ignoring these things, but being so aware of them, and so in touch with them, that you know how to handle them in any given situation. Being stoic is not about ignoring feelings, but being so in control of yourself that you can acknowledge and manage them in a healthy way.
Another way that I think the toxic positivity gets mixed up with stoicism is that the stoics teach us that our perception is how we give meaning to the things around us, and this meaning influences how we feel about things. We should take time to be aware of our perceptions so that we are sure that we are reading a situation correctly. Often our perspective is wrong and we respond incorrectly, so doing our best to be sure that our perspective serves us, and our observations are correct, we can change the meaning we give things. This doesn’t mean that we can simply decide that something isn’t dangerous and suddenly it’s not. For example, if we see someone coming at us with a knife and an angry expression, we can’t just decide that it’s safe and everything will be fine.
There are plenty of situations where changing our perspective is useful and we can choose how we want to react when we feel those emotions. For example, if someone is insulting us and we decide we don’t really care about what they have to say, then it’s pretty easy not to get riled up about it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t call them out for being rude, or point out that what they have to say is offensive. The parts that we control are whether we are offended and what we do about it.
You gotta know happy – you gotta know glad
Because you're gonna know lonely
And you're gonna know bad
— Mark Knopfler
Good and Bad Emotions
Another problem comes in when we make judgements about whether the emotions that we feel are good or bad. I want to propose that no emotion is good or bad, it just is. Are some emotions difficult to handle? Yes they are, but that does not make them bad. And the thing is, life is going to be full of all kinds of emotions. You will not feel happy all the time. There’s going to be sadness, heartbreak, and sorrow. And they’re all okay, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling these things. In fact, learning to appreciate all these emotions makes you a more full human being. I mean, if someone close to us dies, do you want to just be numb to it? Grief is exactly what we are feeling, and there is nothing wrong with feeling grief. Grief is a challenging emotion, but it’s not a bad emotion. I know for me, as much as it sucks to go through these difficult emotions, repressing them and ignoring them is far worse.
Life is Suffering
How do you combat toxic positivity?
The first of the four noble truths the Buddha taught was that there is suffering, and that there is no way to escape it. We will get sick. We’ll feel pain. We will feel sorrow, and loneliness, but when we accept that there will be suffering in life, then we are already on the path to enlightenment. We make room in our lives for all the emotions we feel, not just the positive one. Think of it this way – if we don’t expect life to be perfect and we assume that things are going to suck and we’re going to get bruised and battered, then we are better able to manage when things are difficult.
And the thing is we shouldn’t being trying to avoid the more difficult emotions. A good way to think about this is that if you aren’t failing at something, you’re not taking any risks or growing. If you haven’t had your heart broken, then you are not trying to love.
We all need to have our experience validated. By ourselves, and by others. Now when I talk about validation, what I mean is that we need acknowledgement of our experience. It does not mean that we need others’ approval. By acknowledging what we’re feeling and talking about what we are feeling, we are able to own our experience. When we share this with another person, they help us validate what we feel. Often what we feel may not make sense, and we may not like the feelings, but it is what we feel. It could be completely irrational, or uncomfortable, but it does not mean those feelings are bad. They just are. The better we get at acknowledging what we’re feeling and sitting with them, the better we can deal with setbacks. When we just “try to stay positive” and pretend that everything is fine, we’re not acknowledging the truth of the situation. In fact, what we’re doing is lying to ourselves.
When I got divorced, I really struggled for a while. While I knew I would get past the feeling of loss, I still grieved for the loss. I missed seeing my kids every day, and putting them to bed at night. To say the least, it was uncomfortable and, at times, painful. There were times I felt incredibly lonely. There were times I’d drop my kids off at their mom’s house and I’d come home and cry in my empty apartment. But I knew that if I just pretended like everything was okay, then I would not only be lying to myself, those emotions would probably show up in other, more destructive ways.
Just as important as feeling our feelings is validating others’ feelings. I think that a big reason many of us find dealing with our emotions so challenging is because we’re often taught at a young age that some feelings are off limits. When parents or peers tell us things like, “Stop crying, everything is fine”, or “it’s not a big deal”, basically we’re being taught that what we feel is unimportant or wrong. What we need in this world is more validation from each other.
When another person talks to us about their feelings or about their experience in the world, if we are constantly trying to put a positive spin on things, we are not acknowledging their experience. If your friend is feeling awful after a breakup, failed at something that was important to them, don’t minimize how they’re feeling. Let them feel it, and share it with them. And validating does not mean that we have to just agree with everything they say. It means that we acknowledge their experience. We acknowledge they feel sad or angry or hurt, just like we would if they were happy.
Dealing with emotions is always challenging, and I think that as we progress as a society, we’re learning more and more how not dealing with emotions in a healthy way is not a way to live an authentic life. Any time that emotions aren’t dealt with, they crop up and cause issues in other areas of our lives. Learning to feel all your feelings and manage them helps you to live a richer and deeper life.
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