Like most of us, I have been through my fair share of trauma during my lifetime. Up until now, my response was to be as positive as possible to try to get through the traumas, whether they were little or utterly overwhelming. I completely believed in the “fake it till you make it” adage. I thought that if I kept acting like I was happy, I’d eventually convince myself that I, in fact, was.
2020 has been a rough year. On top of the global pandemic that has been raging on for the last half-year, I got into a major car accident at the beginning of the year (that looks like it is nowhere close to being resolved). Subsequently, my injuries and loss of car led me to not being able to work at my previous day job anymore. I’ve been sick three times this year, and my childhood cat passed away earlier this month. These situations made the perfect storm for me to fake positivity in the hopes that I’d actually end up happy. However, what actually ended up happening was that I started to spiral further down.
A new study released earlier this month from the University of Bath and London School of Economics and Political Science made me realize that my toxic positivity wasn’t getting me anywhere. I only recently discovered what toxic positivity was during my 200-hour yoga teacher training. There, we defined it as that teacher who shows up to class super peppy and cheerful, no matter what is going on in her personal life, which can end up hurting her and the students around her. I’m sure you know some people like this, or, like, me, you are unintentionally dealing with toxic positivity yourself.
According to the study, 80% of the population are unrealistically optimistic. So we are not alone in this. The researchers performed surveys to determine if participants (1,601 in total) were optimists, pessimists, or realists. Optimists were overly positive about everything, pessimists were the opposite to avoid disappointment, and realists didn’t expect the worst or the best, and just went with the factual information they had about the situation. Over 18 years, the researchers checked in with the participants to report their well-being, mental health, and financial circumstances. What they found is that the realists had the best well-being out of the three groups.
If you think about it, these results make sense. For the unrealistic optimist who practices toxic positivity every day, whenever a “negative” thing happens, it’s hard to process and accept that it actually happened. This has been happening to me for several years. Something traumatic happens, and I just try to push it away and block it out because it’s too negative. I never heal, and instead, the trauma keeps resurfacing for years on end because I never processed it. After my car crash, this same pattern surfaced in me. With everything else going on in the world at the time, I kept forcing positivity on myself. I avoided dealing with the emotions coming up within me. I had nightmares every night, it got to the point that I could no longer sleep. Because I refused to let myself feel these so-called negative emotions my soul and body needed to experience.
During my yoga teacher training, my group checked in with each other every weekend to talk about how everyone was doing. A few of us shared, each time talking about something stressful or upsetting that was going on in life, but ending with a variation of “but that’s okay! I’m happy to be here with everyone!” One of my teachers stopped the group to talk about toxic positivity. She told us to change the way that we think about our emotions. Rather than putting them in “good” or “bad” categories, let each one exist on its own. These emotions are already descriptive of our state of mind, we don’t need to label them or ourselves as good or bad. She gave us permission then to feel what we need to feel. She told us if we don’t allow these emotions to pass through our bodies, then the emotions will instead end up trapped inside of us.
At the time, this teaching moment went in one ear and passed out the other. I continued to force positivity on myself. I pretended to be peppy and cheerful every day, all the while knowing I was getting worse. And then I got the phone call from my mom: my cat Tootsie, who was my best friend for the last eleven years, had died. It was all too much to handle. I couldn’t stop crying for days. But during those few days, I couldn’t keep up the facade of fake happiness. I let myself mourn her, cry, and feel all of the grief. During those few days, when my insurance called me, I let myself feel the anxiety and uncertainty around the car crash. And somehow, at the end of those few days, I started to feel better.
I gave up on expecting every day, and every week, to be perfect. I let the emotions pass through me, and surprisingly the ones I labeled negative were there for less time when I did. Once I noticed this, the words of my teacher rang through my mind. It was as if my mind were a river, and all of the past emotions were debris that started to collect along the riverbank, eventually stopping the flow. Once I began to accept and appreciate the beauty of all of the human emotions that arise, the river started to flow once more. I started journaling and meditating on these emotions, just allowing myself to recognize what they were and why they were coming up. I noticed how they came up and changed throughout the day. I haven’t stopped since.
If unrealistic optimism or toxic positivity is something you struggle with, I hope that my story has helped you in some way to realize that it is okay to not always be cheerful all the time. We are all going through a lot right now. Give yourself permission to be human and present. This isn’t an easy process by any means, I’m still learning as I go. Start with just writing down how you feel when you notice an emotion or reaction coming up. Then you can choose whether you want to let it go or allow yourself to feel in that moment. However, even the act of noticing and acknowledging will begin to heal you. As human beings, we are ever-changing. Letting go of the expectations of being in a constant state, even if that’s a state of happiness, brings life back into our souls.
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Photo: Ania from annamikolajczakphotography