• Playful Healing

Down with Toxic Positivity: How to Feel Your Feelings


Shannon Knight, LCSW, RPT-S, ACAS

Good vibes only. Smile. Focus on the positive. Just quit thinking about it. Look on the bright side. All of these are examples of toxic positivity. This topic has been on my mind recently. I was gifted a gratitude journal earlier this year, and quarantine seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally start working in it. I’ve also had some pretty crazy dreams lately, so I’ve also started writing in a dream journal.

I’m not sure how much you know about dream journals or their purpose, so I’ll break it down. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, believed that our dreams held the keys to knowing the Self. “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Jung was a component of knowing the whole self: the light and the dark. It is not an easy journey to know yourself. Diving deep and questioning why you are the way you are is an amazing and terrifying journey I’d invite anyone to explore.

With that being said, I’ve been engaged in this work for quite a while. Enter the gratitude journal. Research shows that expressing gratitude daily and making this a habit can help a person to feel happier. So, it’s a good idea, right? The gratitude journal I’m working through has a daily challenge with follow up questions. It asks me to write about three things I’m thankful for each day in addition to the questions. The first question that tripped me up was this: “What can I forgive myself for?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a human being, and I have made plenty of mistakes throughout my life. But, I don’t feel guilt about most of it, because I’ve learned from all of it. And, that darkness is an important part of who I am as a person. Moving on to a few days later, I encountered the questions, “What am I holding onto from my past that is holding me back?” and “In what ways does thinking about the past stop me from improving in the future.” This is where the book lost me.

As a therapist, I believe that talking about, thinking about, and playing through things that have happened in your past is not only helpful, but healing. But, the gratitude journal is encouraging me to stop thinking about it, so I can be happy. The gratitude journal wants me to ignore the darkness, but I can’t really know myself without the dark parts.

The gratitude journal isn’t alone either. Lots of people in our society take this stance also. You’ll feel better if you just…exercise more, go to church more, forgive, write in your gratitude journal.

Happiness is a word that is actually used to describe a few different emotional states. Emotions are usually described in positives and negatives when that’s not actually the case. Emotions have purpose. What are they trying to tell us?

A lot of us were taught that feelings are bad while we were growing up. This didn’t even need to be something that was said to us but messages we were sent nonetheless. Stop crying. Quit yelling. Feelings were not talked about. They were punished. As our generation grows up, many of us have come to see how this harmed us as we were entering adulthood.

People who are emotionally healthy are able to feel and experience the whole realm of emotions. This doesn’t mean that feelings like guilt and shame are not unpleasant. It means emotionally healthy people accept these feelings just like they would accept joy or satisfaction. The key to accepting and welcoming all feelings but especially feelings perceived as negative is identifying what is causing the feeling. For example, the coronavirus is giving me yucky feelings. The next step is identify the feelings. So, for me, the coronavirus is bringing up feelings of anxiety, fear, boredom, and loneliness. Following this, it is important to recognize any self-criticism that comes up. This could be thoughts like, “I shouldn’t feel that way. It’s not that big of a deal.” Or “I should be doing more.” We criticize our thoughts and feelings in an attempt to make ourselves better people; however, this always makes us feel worse.

After identifying any self-criticism, try to understand why you might be feeling that way. I might be feeling anxiety and fear, because the coronavirus is new, and its effects are largely unknown or work hasn’t been as consistent, so financially there are good reasons to be anxious. We, as humans, need connection so loneliness is also probably a common feeling. The last step in this process is to allow yourself to have the feelings. Cry. Scream. Curl up in a ball. Do whatever you need to do. Accept the feeling. Feel the feeling. Become friends with the feeling. You might even say to the feeling, “I don’t love it when you come to visit.” Or, “You, again?” You could use expressive arts to accept the feelings: draw it, paint it, sculpt it, etc.”

The relief from accepting and experiencing your feelings might not be immediate. But, it could be. It’s also possible that you might feel better and then feel worse again. All feelings are okay, and this is normal. To find more information about feeling your feelings, I’d recommend Tina Gilbertson’s book, “Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.” She states, “You let feelings ‘go’ by feeling them fully. Once they’re felt, they can leave.”

Accepting yourself, the light and the shadows, will help you lead a deeper, meaningful, and more fulfilling life. It might not always be happy, but the dark helps us to appreciate the light.

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