Toxic Positivity

I firmly believe that having a positive outlook is a choice. It is a choice we must make each morning to manifest gratitude and keep the goodness of our lives in focus. Last year after a battle with my own mental health that left me at the proverbial bottom, I swore to deliberately choose joy each day since climbing out of the depths. What happens though, when we force positivity? When we narrow that sunny focus to the point of excluding reality? I'd argue that, like with all things, positive thinking to excess becomes counterproductive at best and, well, toxic at worst.

Toxic positivity, I'll admit, sounds like an oxymoron. Being too positive doesn't fit the usual profile of detrimental thought patterns. But if we examine it further, it does. Simply being optimistic is healthy.  Forcing ourselves to wear rosey-colored glasses in perpetuity, however, is not. Denying ourselves the opportunity to feel negative emotions as they arise organically leads to a compounding of suppressed or even repressed feelings that can fester and manifest as physical or mental pain when we least expect it.

Like most concepts that lead to personal growth, I'm learning this the hard way. I've always tried to look on the bright side, but my anxieties and proclivity to catastrophize would often cloud over my naturally sunny disposition. Once I got a diagnosis of anxiety and began my journey with self-discovery, I made that decision I mentioned earlier. I decided that come hell or high water, I was going to be the most-positive version of myself that I could be. because I did not like the version of myself that went full negative and existed without light or hope while I was in the depths of personal despair. So, I chose optimism.

When making this choice, however, I did not take into account my tendency to go full throttle with things. I simply don't half-ass anything once I make a decision to commit. If I decide to work out, I work out every day. If I decide to paint a room in my house, I paint until it's finished without stopping. If I decide to read a book, I'm not putting it down until I know how it ends. You can see a pattern and extrapolate just how hap-hap-happy I've tried to make myself these past months. I've shoved all the ugly down and let only the best parts shine through. I've mistaken my denial for growth and as such gotten complacent in doing all of the self work needed for authentic maturation. Positive vibes, only, amIright?

I'd be lying if I said I was forcing myself to be happy, because I am genuinely happy. But, and this is a big BUT, no one is happy all the time. Life comes with some seriously sharp edges that cut and tear at us. When we build an armor of contrived positivity, we become numb to those cuts and move forward oblivious to our own wounds. In making the decision to choose joy, I inadvertently chose to ignore everything else, or at the very least de-prioritize any emotion I've subconsciously deemed to be negative. It's gotten me back to a place that I've been to before, one where I'm blindsided by a tidal wave of painful symptoms, both physical and emotional. I hadn't even realized I'd sunk back into the habit of shoving anything uncomfortable into the basement of my psyche while keeping myself distracted enough to not notice I was getting low on storage space. The rosey glasses have been bitch-slapped off of my face and I'm now forced to wade through the shadows of my own creation.

After a year or so of this, the shadows are numerous. I started to walk the path of healing from what I'll call my personal Armageddon just as the Covid pandemic was starting. At the same time, we also began down the painful path beside our dearest friends as they were placed in the arena to battle with cancer. It's been a heavy year, and though I've shed many tears throughout, I'm not sure I've really let myself process any or all of the darkness that is swirling around my persistent ball of artificial light. 

The last few weeks have really tested me for a variety of reasons and I've felt a growing sense of unease that I couldn't put a name to. I'm now at the point where I can see what's happening and am trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose. I think my subconscious is overflowing with anger, sadness, helplessness, guilt, shame, and all of the other "bad" emotions I've denied in recent memory. I need to let myself feel these things in order to purge them, but it's easier said than done. 

This is all complicated by the fact that pent-up emotional pain, for me, manifests as physical pain. Even though I know this and done research on it, it still takes a lot of energy to convince myself that there isn't actually a physical problem. It adds to the overall feeling of anxiety and threatens to derail all rational thought. I didn't know about psychosomatic pain a year and half ago, and the pain itself began my spiral into panic and depression. I've read several books by real doctors on the subject (Mindbody Prescription by Dr. John Sarno, Unlearn Your Pain by Dr. Howard Schubiner, and am mostly through The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Beseel van der Kolk) and have seen a complete reduction in pain symptoms...until this week. I am in pain and scared right now, but am able to sit and reflect on why that might be. What I've come up with is that I've been suppressing the wreckage left in the wake of my experiences. I've been unwittingly feeding this demon that I keep locked up all of my fears and aches and grief. Now it's loose and I'm forced to look it in the face. 

It's probably going to get worse before it gets better, but I am stronger than I was a year ago. I can flex the hard-earned muscle I've gained while pulling myself up inch by inch from rock bottom. I'm trying to remember that as I sit and sort through the shit storm that threatens to demolish my defenses. I guess I'm still trying to be positive, but not to the exclusion of all else. I'm maybe back to being cautiously optimistic that I can weather this storm and come out battered but breathing on the other side. I read the other day that hope is the only real antidote to fear. Instead of trying to constantly manifest happiness, maybe I'll begin to foster hope, instead...or in addition to. I don't know the answers, only that I want to work towards them instead of giving up. I think that's hope enough for today. 


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