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"Just try to be happy": Does more harm than good?

Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear… are very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They’re like messengers that tell us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. – Pema Chödrön

People are often told to adopt positive affirmations and attitudes to improve their mental state. By coping better with stress and avoiding unhealthy behaviors, these people would be able to improve their mental health and well-being. However, relaying positive quotes to someone experiencing mental health concerns only serves to establish how little you understand, and how un-self-aware you are. It trivializes the other person’s experience and makes them feel more alone, during a time when they need support.

This is known as toxic positivity, which is characterized by the dismissal of negative feelings and the response to anguish with false assurances rather than empathy. It stems from dissatisfaction with negative emotions. Resilience and strength are all about managing and recovering from stressful experiences and not disregarding unpleasant emotions. Dealing with them head-on is integral for one’s emotional well-being. Opting to be positive may have its benefits at the moment, actually facing one’s feelings and roots is more favorable in the long run.

Avoiding unpleasant and undesirable emotions does more harm than good as it leads to building unhealthy habits to deal with stress and steering clear of confronting the issue at hand. Fake positivity has also given rise to the term “smiling depression”—appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms. It is harmful as those who are close to the person and can offer support are unable to recognize if there is a problem with that individual, which stops them from receiving guidance and the emotional support required to help them. This, in turn, makes the issue at hand larger and more difficult to solve later on. Several psychological studies reveal that hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and even increased difficulty avoiding these distressing thoughts and feelings.

Toxic positivity can also adversely affect children, as a parent’s first instinct is to dismiss their child’s concerns and assure them that everything is okay even when it is not. This leads them to believe that feeling emotions that are not positive is unacceptable, which influences how they develop and process their emotional notions and how they learn to express or not express their own emotions.

Research notes that this phenomenon is also gendered: Boys are only encouraged to exhibit emotions that are perceived as powerful, such as anger, whereas girls are urged to show feelings that are milder feeling-ness These differences that arise due to gender can result in men suppressing their emotions and women expressing themselves in positive manners that do not encapsulate how they truly feel.

Accepting our negative feelings allows us to make a greater and healthier transformation without putting any pressure on ourselves to do it. It represents somewhat of a paradox — it is effective at helping individuals change their emotions, and yet it is done without the intention to change emotions. Acceptance entails seeing unpleasant and negative emotions as something we all go through, rather than something to fight against. Becoming at ease with all of your emotions – the good, the bad, and the ugly — is easier said than done, but is an integral first step towards better mental health and understanding ourselves.

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