‘It’s okay to not be okay’: From Toxic Positivity to Embracing Negative Emotions.

“Everyone is going through something”, “Stay Positive”. “Some people have it worse”, “Be grateful for what you have”. “Get over it”, “Be happy”, “It’s not that big a deal”, “Positive vibes only”.

How often do you hear or say any of the statements mentioned above? Pretty often, isn’t it? Now, what I’m going to say may come off as a shock but bear with me while I explain to you why you should avoid or think through before you use any of these statements.

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Can Positivity be Toxic?

Imagine this, someone you care for has recently lost their job and this is causing them a lot of distress. In situations like these our first response is to give her/him advice. “It could have been worse” or “at least your family is supporting you” or “it’ll be fine, be positive”. While you obviously care for your friend and don’t mean any harm, your statements aren’t doing your friend any good.

When things go bad, there are so many mixed and negative emotions that one may be experiencing. These could be fear, embarrassment, anxiousness, anger, sadness, hopelessness, irritation, pain, and whatnot. While your statements are true, no amount of positive statements would change how your friend is ACTUALLY feeling. To make things worse, you may delegitimize your friend’s feelings and may even make them feel incompetent for not being able to deal with this.

Source: pixabay.com

So, what is Toxic Positivity?

The positivity that is not doing anyone good or improving an individual’s current state while ignoring the emotional pain that is being experienced and also just the mere expectation for someone to be grateful or have a positive mindset during difficult times is Toxic Positivity.

Moving from Positivity to Negativity

Confused? Why would you ask someone to be negative instead of positive? But, my question to you is, will ignoring negativity mean that it’s not there?

An important point to note before I go ahead with this is that Positive is not equal to good. Neither is Negative equal to bad. Rather think from the perspective of evolution. Negative emotions are nothing but “uncomfortable feelings”. Fear helped people escape and prepare themselves in a dangerous situation, it was a sign that something is not okay but at the same time positive emotion or “comfortable feelings” were a sign that they’re safe.

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a psychology student is not to “control” negative emotions but rather “embrace” them. We constantly try to “get over it”, we’re constantly taught that these negative emotions have to be gotten rid of but what we’re not told is that it’s okay to go through negative emotions. You don’t have to run away from them. They’re here for a purpose. So, we have to first, ACCEPT IT– the anxiousness, sadness, fear, jealousy and hurt. We do more harm to ourselves when we try ignoring or controlling these emotions and feelings.

When things aren’t going a particular way, let’s allow ourselves to feel bad about it. Let’s embrace the feelings of anxiousness- let’s acknowledge these not so good feelings, they’re trying to say something.

Source: Image by 1388843 from Pixabay

Explore negative emotions too

Now, I’m not saying that we should let negative emotions take over us but what I am saying is that we need to WELCOME AND EXPLORE them before we can SOFTEN THEM. We need to be compassionate to ourselves because when we don’t do that and instead, we reject and refuse to listen to them they come back louder and harsher.

When something bad happens, instead of trying to ignore your emotions, start by first accepting them. “Yes, I am feeling disheartened and scared”. Second, welcome and explore them. Okay, I’m feeling scared but why am I feeling like this, what about it is triggering, what is the intensity of my feelings”. Third, soften them- and realize that this is a slow process. Give yourself time and listen to yourself, understand what YOU need.

Source: Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay

Is it that easy?

Negative emotions are often intrusive and pervasive. They’re stubborn stains that can’t be removed and I’m not going to give you self-help advice that many social media influencers give. I have nothing against them but saying “be happy” or “you can do it” or giving advice without deeper knowledge is NOT okay and in fact, it may even be more toxic. We watch influencers in awe and compare our lives with theirs, but what we get to see is only part of their reality, it’s incomplete. We start believing that maybe something is wrong with us for not being able to deal with it or get over it.

There’s a difference between embracing emotions, ignoring emotions, and being absorbed in emotions. I’m not going to sugar coat it; while, it is easy to ignore and get absorbed in emotions, it is actually really hard to embrace emotions. So, what does one do?

Source: Image by MAGGY BURLET from Pixabay

Mental Health Awareness

Mental health is being spoken about a lot more than it was a couple of years ago, but with that our knowledge about it should increase as well. Counselors and therapists do not solve problems but rather, they’ll help you understand them and solve them for yourselves. By reaching out to a mental health professional, you’ll learn how to accept, embrace, and soften your negative emotions. Definitely, you can do this on your own but sometimes it’s just hard and we can’t understand why we feel a particular way. Therapy will help you do just that. The whole idea that going to a therapist makes you weak, or means that you have a problem is absolutely and completely untrue. While therapy and counseling do help you overcome issues and problems; sometimes, therapy can just be a way for you to learn something new about yourself. It could be a means to learn how to accept yourself or learn how to improve yourself. Our immediate reaction when someone tells us that they have been going for therapy is “what’s wrong?”, but imagine if instead, we asked “what are you learning?” or “how is it going?”.

Learning to embrace emotions is one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves. It’s the most powerful thing I have done for myself and in fact, it has made me whole and happier, it has helped me grow and heal. It wasn’t a linear path but then again, mental health is not linear. It really is okay to not be okay and it is even more okay to seek help when needed.

Source: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Where can I find help?

Going to a therapist or counselor who is not professionally and ethically trained may be a traumatizing experience for you. Counseling is NOT advice-giving. If your therapist/counselor makes you feel judged, uncomfortable, doesn’t give you their attention, and doesn’t actively listen to you; then you may not be going to the right person for you. Understand that it is your right to ask your therapist/counselor about their qualifications. They should have nothing less than a Masters in psychology/psychological counseling/ clinical psychology (there are some people who practice after a diploma but that’s up to you to decide if you are comfortable with it). Your mental health is important, don’t compromise with it!

Source: Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay
Here is a small list of Mental Health Organisations that provide ethical and professional counseling (I’m sure you’ll find a lot more organizations and mental health professionals)-
The Alternative Story (Bengaluru)
Sampurna Montfort Family Counselling Centre (Bengaluru)
Heart it Out (Bengaluru)
Parivarthan (Chennai)
Element H (Chennai) 
Hibiscus Foundation (Chennai)
One-Life NGO (Chennai)Another Light Counselling (Queer Affirmative, Mumbai)
The Secret Ingredient (Pune)
InnerHour (Mumbai)
Sanjivini (New Delhi)
Therapize India (All over India)

Feature image source: Woman photo created by cookie_studio – www.freepik.com

About the author: Sakina Saraiya has completed her BSc in Psychology from Madras School of Social Work and is currently in her final year of MSc Psychology (Specialising in Clinical Psychology) at Sampurna Montfort College, Bengaluru. She is a level 1 and 2 Certified EFT Practioner and has done research in the areas of Depression-Anxiety, Prosocial Behaviour and Self-Compassion. She is currently working on a research in the area of Self-Regulatory Failures and Trauma.

Sakina is a feminist, she is interested in expressive arts, loves working with children, and when she’s not doing any of that, you can find her baking or cooking.

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  6. […] a clincial medical student, MD program for helping us and clearing our doubts. A big thank you to Sakina Saraiya who researched all the information in mental health […]

  7. Wow! This is an amazing article. This almost completely embodies my stance on dealing with negative emotions.

  8. Well articulated Sakina. Agree with what you have written.
    Swapna Nair
    The Sanctum Counselling

  9. Well articulated Sakina. Agree with what up u have written.
    Swapna Nair
    The Sanctum Counselling

  10. Good article Sakina.. A completely different way of thinking…yes,, should help if you embrace and not avoid ..

  11. That’s very open article to embrace and take things as they come along… the whole mental health is complete confused my people showing think postive… n whatvis one reason we show more than what we do.. I relate tk this well written article.. Sakina

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