Growing Up Jeub · Psychology and mental illness · Recovery

Non-toxic Positivity

Intense emotions
Image is of a painting titled “Crosses All Around to Haunt Me,” a line from a Plumb song. Intense emotions are depicted with bright colors and white crosses.

I started blogging over a decade ago, and I’ve always written about my beliefs and how they’ve changed. In one of my early posts, “When the Heart Forces a Smile,” I talked about how my mom taught me forced smiling when I felt upsetting, intense emotions. I didn’t identify this as a form of controlling toxic positivity at the time. My mom was weaponizing a fact: forcing a smile can indeed have an influence on your mood.

However, she wasn’t giving me the support I needed as a child with big feelings. What I learned was that my intense emotions weren’t valid, and I should do my best to be cheerful no matter how I felt.

It was a deeply rooted belief, enforced from early childhood, that negative emotions should be suppressed. My parents controlled everything I took in, from music to movies and books. Christian entertainment reinforced the idea that if I was not always joyful and content, I was doing something wrong. Furthermore, as I wrote then, it wasn’t just about pretense – I believed that god was watching my heart and mind. I couldn’t fake it. I needed to put genuine effort into focusing on how god was bigger than anything that could bother me. Years of reinforcement taught me to distrust any negativity. I literally believed that such things were planted in my mind by a demonic force.

Multiple people commented on that post saying it’s dangerous to downplay my emotions, but I initially ignored them. The problem became impossible to ignore when I learned I was dealing with severe depression. Experts on the subject describe toxic positivity as a form of avoidance. Mental avoidance only works for a short period of time. If negative emotions are avoided over a long stretch, it leads to increased negative emotions. This is because these feelings are signals that something needs attention. Ignoring these signals makes them more intense as they try to get attention. I had spent a lifetime in avoidance of my feelings, first as a child and then as an adult.

Between then and now, I’ve held a lot of distrust for forced positivity. I ended up swinging to the other extreme, though. I learned to wallow and ruminate on the negative. My writings became darker and emphasized a pessimistic outlook. This built toward even more avoidance, as the negativity grew overwhelming. For years in my twenties, I focused on how bleak things seemed, both for myself and the world. I chose to engage with people who saw the world as a dark and hopeless place, too. My longest-lasting romantic relationship was with someone who fueled this outlook.

I got an excellent psychiatrist who helped me get more mentally stable in 2021, and that long-term relationship ended later that year. I began working an in-depth recovery program in the middle of last year. With the help of therapists, counselors, and multiple group classes on coping skills, I began to see that not all positivity was toxic, and not all negativity was true. The most helpful form of therapy for me personally has been Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. One of the most important skills taught through DBT is checking the facts against emotions, and deciding from there what to do.

Emotions are a reaction to perception, but they are not facts. This was extremely hard to recognize at first. Now I have a better understanding of how to see past my own intense feelings and identify the facts. I’ve learned to ask questions about what’s leading me to feel what I’m feeling, and make an informed decision. I’ve learned to acknowledge that my emotions need to be felt and validated, whether they are positive or negative. It’s okay to feel a full range of emotions, no matter how painful or elevating.

As a child and young adult, I didn’t know that it was okay to feel a variety of emotions. I learned to force down my negative emotions. When I stopped believing in the power of forced positivity, I swung to the extreme of emphasizing negativity. In the last couple of years I’ve learned that both extremes are toxic for mental health. I now practice “dialectical thinking,” that is, “recognizing that two opposing ideas can coexist and both be true.” I have a printout hanging above my desk with a series of examples of these opposing ideas. The one I like most says, “I had a traumatic childhood AND I can still live a good life.” With professional mental health support, I am learning how to balance my emotions and reality.