A few weeks ago, and for the first time ever, I came across the phrase ‘toxic positivity’.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about this phrase and it’s meaning, and this blog is a marrying up of posts I’ve made since then in my facebook group The Rising Oak; my deepening understanding and application of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; and my continued thinking and research as I’ve prepared for #worldmentalhealthday
Firstly though, I want to tell you the story of a little girl I once knew.
This little girl was born in to a home that was extremely difficult and abusive from the start, and she ended up being removed from that home aged 5. She lived in a children’s home for the next 2 years, one face amoungst many.
Then, this little girl, just after her 7th birthday, met and moved in with people who became her adopters. In many, many ways this was a great home but a traumatic situation that repeatedly took place over the span of 5-7 years took it’s toll, adding to her early trauma, and creating quite a defensive and worried little girl, and then teenager.
In many ways she was outwardly successful; working hard and achieving good academic results, going to college and then university, finding a partner, getting married and having children.
In other ways, life was hard and she found her internal life increasingly difficult to manage, becoming overwhelmed, stressed and anxious, and hugely worried what others thought of her. This manifested in to unhelpful and unhealthy behaviours.
As time went on, dealing with the impact of trauma, managing a lot of loss and grief in quick succession, a narcissistic friendship, and working a stressful job, led to prolific weight gain and periods of depression. This little girl, who was now an adult, broke. She felt buried in worry, anxiety, grief and loss.
Not many people knew because she was so good at putting on a face, of being upbeat, saying she was okay and pushing through.
I knew though. I knew her deepest darkest feelings and secrets. I knew because I am her. That little girl was me!
The last 10 or so years have been a massive revelation for me; I’ve been down in to a deep dark pit but whilst I was there, I took the opportunity, out of necessity, to be planted, to grow and to emerge a healthier and freer version of myself. I am more optimistic, I am stronger, and I am resilient. It wasn’t easy, but my goodness, it was necessary and in many ways, I am grateful it happened.
I have come to the conclusion through these experiences, that toxic positivity is a real thing, and that it can create and continue to facilitate poor mental health (however, there is also a caveat to that, and that is that toxic negativity is also a real thing and can equally create and continue to facilitate poor mental health. So it’s about balance).
I grew up in a Christian home and spent a lot of time at church and church events. I was surrounded at home and at church by many wonderful and fantastic people. They are kind, they pushed me to do my best, they help others in ways most of us could only hope to be able to do, and they enabled me to be strong minded, educated and to have opinions (which at times they probably regret!!!). Without a doubt, I owe many of the people in my life a lot, and my life would have looked very different if they hadn’t have been in it.
However, one thing I’ve discovered about many christian homes and churches, especially back in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, is that a smile was to be worn at all times, and praying to God was always the answer in bad times. Now, don’t misunderstand me, none of that is wrong. But I also know that smiling and praying are not the only, or mutually exclusive options either, and to present them as such does, I think, constitute toxic positivity.
I think it would have helped me to know that my parents and other adults were scared, sad and worried when their lives got tough, as that would have validated my own feelings of that ilk. And if they had have been more open about their emotions and mental health/illness through cancers, redundancy, debt and other stressful situations, it certainly would have helped me to know that it’s okay to not be okay at times.
I remember approaching a number of people to talk to them about a traumatic experience I was going through, and to discuss thoughts I was having around my sexuality but I never really got to say much about any of it, just that I was feeling sad. And I remember being prayed for and with. A LOT. And that wasn’t wrong, it was actually quite comforting. But it also would have helped me enormously if I’d have been able to talk freely about my internal life, and have someone respond in kind.
But instead, because openness about emotions was not something that regularly happened, I pushed it down. Instead I acquired a perspective that I must be weird or damaged or wrong in some way to not be feeling happy and shiny all the time. I acted it but I didn’t feel it, at all, and that was toxic for me.
It was very difficult to be honest about, or even be aware of my own declining mental difficulties for many years. When I did become aware, and even now sometimes, it was hard to be open about how I was feeling because it went against the grain of smile and be happy. And that can manifest as one form of toxic negativity, sometimes coming out as pain, anger and frustration. It can be a vicious cycle.
Due to these past, and even some recent experiences, I am now much more open about the periods of depression I experienced, and the continuing anxiety that grew out of that. I manage that through a number of ways but above all, I’m open about it because hiding it is one more pressure that I don’t need. And I encourage others to be open about it too, because that’s one more pressure you don’t need.
I believe that having a shiny, happy outlook all the time is both impossible and unrealistic if we are to have a healthy mind and spirit. It really is okay to not be okay.
As well as frequently practicing Emotional Freedom Technique, I also practice Mindfulness, and I talk about my emotions, wellbeing and mental health. I absolutely believe that, as humans, we all have the right and need to sit with our difficult emotions, acknowledge and accept that we are feeling those ways, and give ourselves space and time to process them.
And I believe that support such as counselling, life coaching and even medication is imperative if we are to acknowledge, address and manage our mental health in a positive way.
When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, my motto is talk, share and care.
However, as I’ve already alluded to, there is a caveat to this and that is that there is also something called toxic negativity, which in one form, can be the act of focusing too much on the challenging and difficult parts of our mental, emotional and physical lives to the detriment of experiencing wellbeing and having and enjoying positive experiences.
So, whilst I believe that openness about our emotions and sitting with them to process them is important, I also absolutely believe that doing that too much, and for too long, can lead to toxic negativity, including low self esteem, low motivation and an overwhelming and ongoing sense of sadness and desolation, leaving us open to entrenched mental health difficulties. I can not see in any way how that is healthy or self care either.
Therefore, once we have acknowledged and processed our feelings, our next step is to manage them, gain a renewed and positive perspective, and move to a healthier, happier and stronger place.
How we can do this will be the topic of our next blog………..
Until then, take care: of yourself, your mental health and your body and spirit
If you’d value some support and guidance in navigating and managing your emotions and life events, please feel free to contact me on 07523830377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out my website at one ww.acornacademycoaching.com