Holidays Haunt Me Part 2: Toxic Positivity

** content warning ** this post discusses my experience w/toxic positivity. Some folks may find this triggering based on their own experiences and how those experiences affected them. Please take care y’all. 

Whew chile. Last week, my therapist introduced me to the concept of toxic positivity (thanks Hannah!) and I’ve been trying to process how I can let myself feel the feels as they come- negative, muddled, positive and otherwise. 

Simply put in my non-professional words, toxic positivity is the notion that you are only allowed to feel positive emotions, and all negative feelings are rejected. Encouraging folks to look on the bright side, to only feel happiness and joy can be harmful because it invalidates and denies someone’s feelings and doesn’t allow you to fully process why you are feeling what you are feeling. 

Not gonna deny, I do think there are times when a quick dopamine response is helpful, and I also think there are times when changing your perspective (a la writing down 5 things you’re grateful for every day) can be beneficial. However, to me, not counting temporary, one-off responses about how to kick in that dopamine or identify an attitude of gratitude, toxic positivity refers to repeatedly denying someone’s trauma and the negative emotions that can stem from it, in the name of just be happy. Also, I’m not a mental health professional- don’t @ me. 

This notion of get over it, that was years ago; move on and be happy with your life now always comes up for me around the holidays. 

In high school, I would often hear we all have choices in life, choose to be happy and I internalized that. As a hormonal, suicidal, and depressed 16-year-old, rarely did I express the full range of emotions I was experiencing to anyone, and the sentiments would ooze out of me at random times. You just never knew which Nique you were gonna get. Into my early and mid-20s, I had been believing for years that there was no space for my attitude in relationships, no home to root my anger, confusion, fear, trepidation. It swam around like lightning, never quite knowing where to land and grounding itself among the innocent, flying branches of my friend’s outstretched arms. I would mention to my partner at the time that my depression was beating my ass, that my anxiety was through the roof because I didn’t feel the holiday cheer and would spend many sleepless nights rubbing my eyes, picking at the same patch of hair on my arms, and wondering how folks perceived me and my bah humbug demeanor. 

I wrote in one of my earliest posts that the first time I remember being suicidal was around 10 years old. 5th grade- Ms. Finch’s class. I had swallowed some of my mother’s pills because I thought I was a burden on my family, and the common denominator for folks’ stress, annoyance and general groan-accompanied eye rolls. A few weeks after the pill swallowing, around Thanksgiving, I tried processing with a friend on the playground: the hard plastic of the swings had long since made my butt numb, the cold metal of the handles had iced my fingers and wrist. Wood chips buried into our shoes and the distinct Pacific Northwest clouds-before-the-rain-in-the-fall smell mixed with wood, old plastic and rubber, titillating my nose. My favorite smell with my favorite swoosh of wind and gravity doin its thing. If the swings couldn’t make me happy, nothing could. 

“Do you ever feel sad? Like you don’t wanna be on earth anymore sad?”

“No.”

“Oh. I do.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. I just do. I told someone we shouldn’t have Thanksgiving cuz they killed all the Indians, and she said it’s just family time. Then I think they’ll be happier if I’m not here. Cuz I ask the wrong questions.”

“My mommy tells me to just be happy.”

“What if you’re not?”

“She says just be happy anyway.”

Neither one of our adolescent brains knew how to vocalize or process through the trauma wrapped up dry turkey and delicious if made right mac-and-cheese, and my confusion about why we had to clean and dress up for something that seemed to be pretty horrible. And, I don’t think another child should be responsible for identifying and unlearning toxic positivity, but it did stick with me how her mama said to be happy anyway.

In high school, I would ask a family member if they thought I was pretty, if they considered me smart. They would wail, “what’re you going through?” “Why are you asking me this?” “Your life is good, what do you have to complain about? Stop being so sad all the time.” Never having answered the question, I would walk away in an even bigger funk. There was no space for my insecurities and the anxiety they packed with them- like zippered into a suitcase, there was no extra oxygen or room for them to live. My style back then was jeans and t-shirt, with a fake flower in my hair, always earrings and lip gloss. When I put a little extra effort into my outside presentation, usually around birthday dinners or Christmas, I would want to question again if they thought I was pretty, but shoved it down with an internal ‘it doesn’t matter- just choose to be happy.’

With different relationships, from sword wielding A to 60 year old Carlos, I would mumble about my social anxiety and its crippling effects on my daily life. How I would walk outside to take out the trash and think they’re all watching me; they’re looking through the plastic and judging the junk I eat. How on the bus I would analyze every face that walked on- those pursed lips are because I’m ugly, with that smug grin I must have food on my shirt or something. A would laugh my musings away with a hand wave and a chillax. Carlos would unbutton my jeans, pushing his hand over my mouth with increasing pressure, holding down against my chin until I could barely gasp for air. The calluses on his palm were soon enough to keep me silent. Flashbacks would creep up on me at any time of year, but especially once a majority of commercials shifted to couples shopping together, pajama instagramming and opening gifts. Oh, just the future I thought I wanted. But don’t think about it, choose to be happy

More recently, I’ve begun to wonder if certain family members will accept my mental illness when I call out for support and someone to vent to. 

On the phone, with my cell on speaker as Snapped played in the background and the narrator’s made-for-a-documentary voice floated around, I recalled how I was nervous about seeing someone, how I felt small around them. The words tumbled out of me, something I didn’t consciously realize was on my mind at the time. The stealing, the pawning, the lying, almost getting evicted, I would take out credit cards and increase my line of credit so we wouldn’t get evicted, they act like nothing happened, they don’t say anything about it to anyone or acknowledge that it’s awkward, Ijustdon’twanttocall, Ifeelsmall. My lamenting was shrugged off with a, that was 5 years ago, you’re still mad? The denial was cemented with a, if you want to be upset about something in the past that’s your fault. How could I explain that it wasn’t just a one-time thing, that there was a list of ways I didn’t feel emotionally seen or supported by this person? Did I have to give them a running tally of everything: calling me stupid on numerous occasions, looking me in the eye and saying they didn’t believe A was abusive because I willingly went over to his house, that my PTSD isn’t real, that my stint in a psychiatric ward was a burden on them because they had to drive over before I could be released, and then the stealing, pawning, outright blaming me for their own actions that they refused to call an addiction? 

I would be spending the holidays with them either way, so I knew this exploration was futile. No matter how I brought it up, whether that I was feeling especially down because of X, that so and so did Y and this was another example of them not respecting my boundaries, that I was trying to set boundaries in the first place because of Z, the answer was always the same: Choose to be happy.

So what’s the alternative? What could I tell them I needed instead of the denial of my emotions? {side bar, I haven’t had this conversation with anyone or brought up how their behaviors and words were affecting me. We’ll see if I can actually do that.}

  1. I need my emotions to be validated: simple. There are days when I’m not going to feel the greatest. I know my triggers and as much as I avoid certain neighborhoods and have cut off certain people (my block game is strong), it’s a fact of life that not everything is peaches and cream all the time and I will have bad days. Also, sometimes I feel some sort of pressure around these folks to chase positivity, to grasp onto anything happy. When I think about it as some sort of race, chasing happiness, when I then have any sort of not-positive experience I feel like I’m in last place and failing. I’m not asking for them to be able to “fix” the issue or “fix” me- I go to therapy to parse out what affects me on the day to day. And I don’t need a savior. 
  2. Accept the feeling: this is more for me and another way I’m trying to practice self-compassion. If I feel depressed, I’ll say “this depression is really tough. Getting out of bed today is not going to happen. Showering is not going to happen.” So what do I need to do for myself today? Not letting it have power over me, of accepting that it’s going to wash over and wane like a wave, makes it feel slightly less overwhelming.
  3. It’s part of being human: related to the above- I need folks to accept that the bad days are part of what makes us human. It happens to me and you (your mama and your cousin too). We’re all connected in needing a community of support, even if the reasons and issues are different. My lack of happiness was made to seem unique and overbearing. Really, I’m not asking for anything special. 

I no longer want to have to put on a mask around certain family members, a plastered smile and one-dimensional version of myself. My feelings don’t stop when I walk into certain rooms, when I go to work, etc. The inauthenticity of it all takes a toll and is damn tiring. I don’t have all the answers, but I know what works for me:

  • Journaling: of course I love writing! But is also allows me to have an outlet for myself instead of keeping it all bottled in. These notebook pages have been filling up with the holiday season and everything associated with it for me. I’ve journaled off and on since elementary school, but recently it has allowed me to see that emotions aren’t necessarily good/bad, positive/negative. They just are. It’s my brain’s way of letting me know where I am at the moment and if I need to make changes. That runs from I feel physically scared and need to get to a place of safety to I feel overwhelmed and want to re-evaluate my time commitments. This inner reflection and dialogue between my brain and me allows me to frame my mentality in a healthy way. 
  • Mantras and inner dialogue: this is a little more abstract, but I’ve been using a tip I got to help with panic attacks to help process my emotions. I’ll say to myself, I’m feeling X right now. I want to feel [calmer, etc.]. Let’s count backwards from 10- that usually calms me down. Let’s watch a video, that usually helps me. I thought it was silly and embarrassing, to admit that I sit on my bed alone and talk aloud to myself, but hey, it is what it is. I’m my own coach, pilot, whatever you want to call it, and it’s how I process things in the moment. 

Have you ever had any experiences with toxic positivity? What do you do to process your emotions? Lemme know in the comments 🙂

3 thoughts on “Holidays Haunt Me Part 2: Toxic Positivity

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