In the midst of midterms, a pandemic, and just life in general, mental health seems to be at the bottom of a list of priorities despite the many emotional and mental obstacles that arise. The initial response to hardships is oftentimes met with phrases such as “out of sight, out of mind,” “it could be worse,” and “look on the bright side.” While these may be valid responses in some situations, more often than not, they actually minimize one’s emotional response and don’t allow them to fully react to the circumstances, ultimately stunting emotional growth.
Forced positivity is not helpful — in fact, it’s actually quite toxic. This type of reaction to adversity is known as toxic positivity, which is essentially the obsession with positive thinking. Toxic positivity is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those profoundly tragic, opting for momentary happiness at the cost of emotional processing.
Here’s a reminder: you get to be sad. We need to stop gaslighting ourselves into thinking that our issues don’t matter, or that our problems aren’t taking a toll on our mental well-being.
Research has actually shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them, may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. One study found a connection between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults; they concluded that people who habitually avoid acknowledging difficult emotions end up feeling worse.
Stopping ourselves from feeling our emotions stunt us from processing and growing from adversity. We need to allow ourselves to feel, to grieve, and to let down our defenses. The first step is to acknowledge our emotions as they come and to not suppress them.
Toxic positivity functions as an avoidant coping mechanism. It allows people to evade emotional situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Whether it stems from toxic masculinity or from childhood trauma, sometimes we turn these same ideas on ourselves, internalizing these toxic ideas, disguising them in our everyday mental health practices.
No one wants to feel sad, angry, or scared, but realizing and understanding those emotions is better than letting them loom over you. These emotions become bigger and more significant as they remain unprocessed.
According to Psychologist Dr. Konstantin Lukin, when individuals avoid difficult emotions, valuable information is lost. He is essentially saying that emotions are information that tell us what we feel in any given situation while also giving us the tools to understand why we’re feeling a certain way, which can lead to greater discoveries about ourselves.
Lukin writes, “Emotions are not only a way for our mind to clue us in to what’s happening; they also convey information to the people around us. If we are sad, it pulls for comfort. If we communicate guilt, it pulls for forgiveness.”
We don’t need to put a facade and hide from the issues that weigh us down. No one benefits from it.
When the flow of emotions is interrupted because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and symptoms. In fact, emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.
We also need to stop perpetuating this behavior whenever we’re consoling someone. Especially when someone’s loved one has passed, many people default to “don’t worry, they’re in a better place now,” which can be very confusing for people processing a tragedy. Allow people, and yourself, to experience the pain, sadness, or anger that comes with the ups and downs of life, from that, begets growth and wisdom.
This isn’t to say that positivity and optimism are not welcomed. However, there is a fine line between optimism and toxic positivity; the line being whether or not it’s actually helpful.
As midterms take a piece of your soul and the overbearing weight of life starts to decay your sanity, don’t hide it away. Acknowledge it. Sit with it. And grow from it, whatever that may mean for you. Whether it’s taking a mental health day, finally confronting a toxic friend, or even lowering your workload, don’t let the fast pace of life become an excuse to neglect your emotional and mental wellbeing.
Your emotions are valid. You are allowed to not be fine. Acknowledge it. Understand why. Take the next steps and take care of yourself.
Art by Angela Liang for UCSD Guardian.