I’ve had this phrase running through my mind for awhile now. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to talk about it, but after some lengthy discussions, I decided it was worth writing about.
I should start with a trigger warning. So many trigger warnings I don’t even really know what to warn against. But I want to talk about some of my dark experiences, my mental health, trauma, my suicidality. I’m going to take a risk and be vulnerable and in hopes that this may help someone. Or not. Maybe this post is more for me than anything. Also, I should note, that while I’ve worked in therapy for over a decade and have seen a lot of therapists (and have a lot of therapist friends) I am NOT a therapist, nor have I played one on TV. So there you have it. This is just me talking. Just raw conversation. Just my thoughts. That being said, what I’m about to write about echoes well some of the DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) techniques I learned about while working in the field.
I felt moved to write about this because I’ve seen the phrase “toxic positivity” thrown around a lot this year. So many therapy blogs have told us to feel our feelings, mourn, get angry, whatever. So many therapy based blogs and articles have said that it’s OK to be depressed or non productive or whatever during this time. I agree with them. I also feel like these articles look down their noses at individuals trying to practice positive self care, counting their blessings, and trying to sprinkle some “love and light” around. I agree with them AND I also think the ideology behind “toxic positivity” that we see flying around is incomplete, and often not helpful. We all need to make space inside our heads in our own way. Sometimes, the way that people manage their mental health is engaging in “toxic positivity”. They don’t mean it to harm others, they’re just trying to survive and be supportive like the rest of us. That isn’t to say everyone that engages in “toxic positive” behaviors are OK either. My hopes are to shed a little light on those of us that may have differing mental health needs, because in my experience, everyone has (and needs) their own unique mental health approach.
I found myself the last few weeks living in my dream city. Despite everything going according to plan, I felt hollow. I felt angry, depressed, homesick, frustrated, stressed. I sat down a few days ago with my wife and just sobbed over my breakfast. I asked over and over again, “what have I done?!” I thought that I made a mistake. I thought perhaps I rushed into things. I wanted to go home. For a few weeks something just felt wrong. This was supposed to be better. I was supposed to mourn my losses in Utah, mourn my stupid job that gave me burnout. I was supposed to start feeling my bottled up feelings and work through them and heal. For once heal, and for once, feel better.
It didn’t work.
Over the course of about a month, I got worse. I wound up staying in bed all day (even though I told myself I was going to get up, walk the dog, visit the beach, clean the apartment). I cried. I felt a nagging anxiety that my world was collapsing. I felt like I was screaming inside trying to understand what happened, and why I was feeling this way in my perfect city, living my perfect life. My wife told me over and over again that it was because I needed to mourn, I needed to feel my emotions, I needed to work through my bullshit and allow myself to feel frightened. I was in a new city. A pandemic was raging. I recently lost my job. My health was declining. I had every reason to be angry, sad, depressed, anxious, and frustrated. I just needed to embrace how I was feeling inside.
And I blew up at her. I looked at her, and screamed, “You don’t get it! I just feel worse! That’s making me feel worse! I ‘ve been embracing these emotions for weeks now. I don’t want to fucking feel these emotions and feel this way. I want to get better and be out in the sunshine!”
I then stormed to the bedroom, like a teenager, and sobbed for three hours. I felt despair. I seriously contemplated suicide. I refused to eat my breakfast (despite taking my insulin) hoping I’d go into a diabetic coma.
Nothing bad happened. I eventually stopped crying, rubbed my swollen eyes, and ate my cold toast. In the middle of crying, I had a sudden thought. What if I just stopped trying to work through those emotions. What if I just tried to be positive, instead of leaning into my emotions like I have been told to do over and over again?
My mind immediately went to when my brother passed away almost 5 years ago. I was there when he took his last breath. I watched him die of cancer, without even realizing it until he was gone. I remember I had started to eat my shredded wheat (to this day, I can’t stomach it), and I heard him gasping. He eventually settled down, and looked like he was falling asleep, only I couldn’t hear him breathing in the nearly silent house. My mother was sobbing, and wouldn’t let go of his hand. I was the one that had to make the tough decision (I wasn’t about to let my mother do this), I got up, and checked his pulse. It was gone. I then called my sister and younger brother, his best friends, to relay the news. I called the hospice team. I went to the store with some family friends and picked up food and drinks for those that came to say goodbye and mourn. I spent the entire day making sure that things ran smoothly, so my mother didn’t have to. I remember she turned to me, eyes bloodshot and puffy, squeezed my hand, and told me, “remember, tough as nails”. And I was. I weathered that entire day, one of the most difficult of my life, with strength.
I should add, at that time, I was also going through a divorce and struggling with a childhood best friend that was becoming hostile and ending. My now wife, was on a family trip in Portugal. The rest of my family was mourning in their own ways, and I felt incredibly alone. I didn’t really have anyone that I felt like I could trust to support me. I bottled up what I needed to, reminded myself that I was “tough as nails” and got through the most difficult week of my life. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the week, but I will leave it at this: the day that my brother died was one of the easiest I had that week. What got me through all of it, was engaging in the “toxic positive” behaviors so many call out. I put on my “big girl panties” as my mother likes to say, and got the job done. I counted my blessings. I read a thousand times the “toxic positive” quotes that help people get through difficult times. I surrounded myself with gratitude and light. Sure, some moments I leaned into my grief, but I quickly pulled myself out to do what needed to be done. I accepted that I couldn’t change the situation, only adapt to it, and make the best of it.
Fast forward five years, and I’m crying like a spoiled brat in my favorite city, thinking of that day. And it hit me. My thoughts were all wrong about the situation. What if I tried to just be positive and accept that I was in a good place, despite feeling anxious? What if I counted my blessings? What if I leaned into gratitude. What if I focused on all of the positive things in my life, and just did the “good vibes only” thing? What if I took what I learned from the past about being tough as nails, and applied it to my less difficult situation? What would happen?
Magic. Magic happened.
I woke up early, the next day got dressed, ate warm toast and journaled about my blessings and inspirations, visited Balboa park, had lunch with my mom. And that angry gremlin that was weighing me down? The sadness? The anxiety? The despair I felt? Gone. I tried to conjure them up. Tried to remind myself of what I felt before. I couldn’t rouse them. Everything felt brighter and more beautiful. I remembered why I was in love with this city. I felt alive.
Perhaps a more educated person than I would diagnose me, tell me I had something wrong. Perhaps I worked through my emotions during that sob. Perhaps I’m wrong about what “toxic positivity” actually means. Perhaps my brain is actually broken.
Regardless, I know one thing. By practicing what so many would call “toxic”, I pulled myself out of a rut, and woke up with a new perspective on life. I’m not saying you need to. I’m not saying that anyone needs to, or that it’s even healthy. All I’m asking, is that you hear my story, and that maybe it resonates with you. I’m asking you to be a bit kinder to your “toxic positive” friends, and honor their needs for positivty as much you honor your needs for space or understanding. I think a lot of people that we would label as “toxic positive” are survivors of trauma and hurting inside, or battling something we will never understand. I know many in my own life (like my mother) that have overcome some incredible hardships with positvity. Her “toxic positivity” comes from a place of extreme trauma (for her privacy, I won’t divulge, but I will say this, her son dying in front of her, was, in my opinion, one of the easiest of her traumas). So before you label someone, or talk about how we should always just honor our emotions and feel them fully, think about my mother and I.
At the end of the day it doesn’t really hurt anyone to live with more “ANDs” in their life. Honor your feelings, AND be positive. Mourn while you count your blessings. Forgive someone AND block them from social media. Live by “Good Vibes Only” AND be pissed at our current state of affairs. Or don’t, you do you. I won’t judge.
There’s a lot of people that suggest there is a “right” way to a human experience. That we should erase positivity that isn’t productive or entirely sincere. That we should wholly feel all of our emotions, process them, embrace them, and/or let them go. And what I am trying to say is that, at least for me, that wasn’t necessarily true. For me, being “toxically positive” was exactly what I needed. Embracing my grief, my pain, my anxieties sent me into a downward spiral that nearly lead to me being hospitalized. By pushing those emotions aside, and forcing myself to see the positive in the situation, I was given a new lease on life.
I’m not saying this is for everyone. But what I am challenging is the idea that we continue to spread certain ideologies as more true, or “healthier” when they may not necessarily be for some individuals. Sometimes being a flawed human, means bottling up your inner demons and dealing with them when and where you can (or leaving them bottled in the closet to rot, or explode later, who knows), and going on with the “good vibes only” crowd so that you can be safe and sane in the moment. Maybe that doesn’t work for everyone, but if you find yourself in a rut of emotions, not going anywhere and constantly feeling a sense of overwhelming grief and anxiety, maybe it’s time for a radical perspective change. Time to radically accept the positive in your life, and try to see things from a new angle.
I mentioned learning DBT techniques before. When I started writing this post, I felt like I was just a crazy person for thinking this way. Turns out, I’m not. There is some therapy approaches to this in DBT, and it’s called Radical Acceptance. It’s essentially a distress tolerance skill. The ideology behind it is to acknowledge pain, while also trying to relieve suffering. We take the trauma and the pain, acknowledge it, and then accept it. We cannot change the facts or the past, only adapt and work through them. Everyone approaches Radical Acceptance in a different way, and for me, it’s to continue to stay hopeful, stay positive, and focus on the good of the situation. Something that I feel like every blog I’ve read about “toxic positivity” says to stay away from.
To be frank, there may come a day that this is not true for me. That all these bottled emotions or inner demons that I am forcing to be wallflowers come back full throttle. Perhaps I will have one huge mental breakdown, and be in a worse place. But I can’t predict the future, nor can I dwell on it. I cannot try to fix today what might be broken tomorrow, it doesn’t work that way. So for now, all I know is that this seemingly strange process worked. It saved my life and my sanity, and tomorrow I am going to wake up with some good vibes, sending radical love and light into the universe, counting my blessings, and radiating positivity.