I’m an Optimist. Is That a Bad Thing?
Note: This blog is the first in a series of blog posts about toxic positivity.
I am an optimist.
Is this a bad thing?
Well, I hear a conversation happening in many circles right now.
Just think positively. Or... Feeling down? Engage in uplifting self-talk. Or... Everything happens for a reason. Or... Choose to be happy.
None of these sentiments, on their surface, are bad things, but I do want to caution you about being overly-optimistic.
But, have you ever even heard of being “overly-optimistic” or “too positive” or “too resilient”? Is this even a thing?
Let’s dissect this concept a bit.
What’s Happening Behind Toxic Positivity
There are many people out there who engage in a consistently positive attitude, no matter the reality. They believe complete positivity is the answer to achievement and to avoiding failure, to attracting the “right” relationships and to moving through life unhurt and without fear. They believe that since we can make a choice to be happy and just be happy, that we should.
Don’t get me wrong. I love joy! However, when positivity, optimism and resilience are solely manufactured, I believe it is time to step back and take stock.
But, Maria [you may be thinking to yourself]... if I’m not working at being optimistic all of the time, then I am bound to feel… well… a whole range of other emotions. Like...even negative emotions! I might feel sad or bad or unhappy or jealous or angry or frightened or disillusioned or concerned or melancholy or…
Yes, I get the idea. And yes, this is true.
But to live in a state of forced positivity and to white-knuckle ourselves to happiness is counter-productive to our growth, our truth and our peace.
To force positivity is to deny reality. And this creates a distance between those who try to do this and their friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances, because individuals who force this positivity will appear to be out of touch with an entire range of emotions. They often lack an understanding of how people can be upset or hurt. They can lose their compassion and their empathy.
In my practice, when I engage people experiencing negative emotions, I let them know this is okay. After all, this is what really makes us different from any kind of species: we have our emotions. I do not suggest my clients reframe negative emotions or talk themselves out of them. That would only serve to deny their experience.
Negative emotions are something we need to understand and acknowledge. To explore. And even sometimes to savor.
We can sit with not only the what of the emotion, but the why of the emotion.
The Purpose of Negative Emotions
We use negative emotions as indicators that something doesn’t work properly. These negative emotions are helpful. They help us to analyze.
I’ll say it once again for those in the back of the room: Emotions are indicators. They are not your state. And, surprisingly, our nervous system doesn't recognize bad and good emotions. Thus, you need to view your emotions again and again.
So, let’s take these negative emotions we experience and let’s not ignore them but see how we can use them for us. First off, let’s generalize them. We do not need to disentangle them from one another. Then, let’s hold this negative emotion up to the light. Why do I feel this negative emotion? How can this serve me? What can it teach me? What do I now know about myself that I didn’t before?
Ultimately, we can do something to let this emotion go: a breath exercise, a meditation or a physical activity. This will help to reframe and rewire the brain.
This is not an exercise that can be done in a rush. We can fool our brain, but we cannot fool our body.
This is a choice. There is always a choice. You get to decide how you use these indicators. You can let them go or you can enjoy and swim and play with these emotions (but not for too long… be careful not to let them drain your energy).
Time to Reflect
The next time you feel a negative emotion coming up, see what it feels like not to stuff it down, reframe it immediately or push it aside in the name of (toxic) positivity.
Explore what it feels like to acknowledge it. To examine it. To peel it back a bit and uncover something from it.
To thank it for providing some insight for you.
And then, to simply… let go.