“Look on the bright side.”
“It could have been so much worse.”
While navigating the highs and lows of our lives, we have too often been reminded of these sentiments by our family, friends and flashy posters on our middle school teachers’ walls.
Optimism and gratitude are integral to our health and happiness, and these statements are indeed well-intentioned. But they actually contribute to “toxic positivity” — the concept that we should adopt a wholly optimistic attitude toward life — which has been reinforced in many aspects of our lives since we were children.
Sometimes it is more than acceptable to acknowledge and spend time with our unpleasant feelings, which we collectively experienced to a greater extent in the last year.
Attempting to avoid these difficult feelings may provide temporary relief, but this is unsustainable in the long run.
This so-called coping mechanism actually backfires. Suppression worsens these difficult feelings.
When you tell yourself to ignore negative emotions, you do not give yourself the opportunity to process them and understand your experiences. This creates an uncomfortable dissonance between your reality and idealized self, which can hurt your well-being. At the same time, your emotions will increasingly build up until they are almost unbearable.
Avoiding unpleasant emotions has adverse social consequences, too.
People who try to conceal them often come off as less relatable and difficult to connect with because it may seem they do not experience these difficult feelings in the first place.
Your emotions are also very powerful and revealing social cues. When others are oblivious to your problems, it is more challenging for them to empathize with and support you. The display of personal sadness and guilt prompts comfort and forgiveness from others, respectively.
It is simply human nature to feel negative emotions, which is why personal attempts to intervene often fail.
This “good vibes only” approach can also breed a sense of complacency.
This attitude can come at the expense of a healthy amount of self-criticism, self-judgment and self-doubt.
While these traits can be toxic to an extreme, they are essential in helping us become the best version of ourselves.
This mechanism enables us to learn from our mistakes and grow as people. It drives us to put in effort and improve our relationships with others. It’s what empowers us to see the world from a realistic lens.
Next time you encounter a loss, failure or stress, take time to actually process your emotions. Try to talk it out internally or with someone else.
This also goes for your relationships with others. Uttering a well-intentioned platitude may give yourself the illusion you’re helping, but being there for someone and sincerely validating their emotions has impactful effects as well.
Encouraging your friends to consider the bright side and relative insignificance of unpleasant situations can undermine their traumas and cause them to doubt the legitimacy of their feelings even more. This can even contribute to gaslighting — manipulating someone into questioning their very reality by refusing to recognize facts, situations and their feelings.
In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey establishes the importance of sincerely validating others’ experiences and feelings.
“Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival—to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated,” Covey writes.
Our feelings and experiences are neither solely good nor bad, but they are essential to our existence as human beings.
Recognizing their value is a key step toward recognizing your humanity and striking a harmonious balance in yourself.