Struggling to Stay Positive? Experts Say Don’t Fight It
You have permission to stop sprinkling sunshine.
It’s safe to say we’re all feeling a bit exhausted with everything happening in the world right now. The natural inclination is to lean on all those glass half full memes or succumb to the pressure of “looking at the bright side,” but sometimes that approach makes the weight feel that much heavier. Then there’s the guilt. Guilt for knowing that others have perhaps been more impacted than you, and for still feeling so despondent.
“When we talk about grief, we usually think of it as the loss of a loved one. As a psychologist in the New York area, I have had to counsel many patients who have lost people near and dear to them to COVID. That is the traditional form of grief,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “Then there is less spoken grief, which is the loss of a way of life. People are mourning the life they once knew. A life where we could touch each other, socialize freely, go to sporting events, work in our offices, travel, and live without the daily fear of catching a potentially deadly virus.”
Add to that a very high level of uncertainty about the future. There’s no textbook manual on what comes next or how we ought to proceed. This is all unprecedented, and it’s really, really, really hard.
Toxic Positivity: The Importance of Feeling and Acknowledging Grief
Toxic positivity has become a bit of a buzzword in niche wellness circles. Simply put, it’s the act of overriding another person’s emotions by directly or indirectly negating how that person feels. For example, saying something like, “Oh, it’s not that bad!” or “Hey, at least you didn’t experience XYZ.”
“I'd like to point out that feelings are not negative or positive, they just are,” says Bianca L. Rodriguez, LMFT. “Using statements like, ‘good vibes only’ or ‘stop being so negative’ with others who express their grief often backfires because you become a person that others no longer feel safe confiding in.”
And here’s the thing. Even if we listen attentively to others and give them that space to feel, we sometimes struggle to give ourselves the same permission to be anything but positive. This is partly because society has deeply ingrained the importance of keeping your chin up, and partly because we are empathetic beings who see others’ struggles and worry, illogically, about minimizing their grief by even feeling ours.
“While being an optimist and seeing the glass as ‘half full’ is a good trait, human beings are not robots. We have emotions, and we need to process them and make sense of them,” Hafeez stresses. “By refusing to feel any negative thoughts, we suppress feelings and they can eventually become bigger, bubble over, and lead us to our breaking point.”
Healthy Ways to Work Through Your Grief
There’s a happy medium between toxic positivity and being a so-called “Debbie downer.”
It’s essential to pay attention to your emotions as they come and to deal with them wholly. The traditional stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. It probably won’t be a straightforward path, and there will be many bumps along the way. “Learning how to identify what you're feeling, experience your feelings, and to self-soothe is the foundation of emotional wellbeing,” Rodriguez says.
Pouring an evening glass of wine or cracking a beer is totally OK, but there’s a line between relaxing with a glass and using substances as a coping mechanism. “Many people will deal with grief by drinking or doing drugs to numb their feelings," Hafeez says. "Once they stop using these substances that temporarily negated their pain, they find that the feelings are still there and must be dealt with before they can move on productively in life.”
She also notes we’ve seen an uptick in substance abuse since the pandemic started. For those who suffer from addiction, there are many Zoom meetings all over the world running 24/7. You can learn more about these at AA.org.
Talking and connecting is so important now, especially since many of our in-person interactions are limited. “Picking up the phone—and not just texting—is very important," Hafeez says. Utilizing technology like Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts to see the other person’s face can be enormously helpful to enhance the level of human connection. If you’re OK seeing people in person, consider forming a small “quarantine crew” of people who you trust are being safe and meet with them regularly.