4 Ways to Avoid 'Toxic Positivity' and Lean Into Emotional Acceptance
There’s a new term making the self-care Twitter rounds: toxic positivity.
It’s the idea that encouraging people to only be happy, positive, look on the bright side, etc. is more harmful than helpful.
You’ve probably seen toxic positivity in action—it’s those Instagram posts that say “good vibes only” or “not here for bad feelings.” And while, for some people, those phrases might be the motivational kick they need, they fail to recognize that feeling our range of emotions—good and bad and meh—is actually the healthier route.
Research shows that accepting, not rejecting, our negative emotions actually helps us better defuse them and leads to fewer negative emotions over time, leading to better overall psychological health. And a new study backs this up.
The study, published in the journal Emotion, found that chasing happiness can cause us to obsess over any not-happy feelings, bringing us more unhappiness overall.
“When people place a great deal of pressure on themselves, or feel pressure from others, to feel happy, they are more likely to see their negative emotions and experiences as signals of failure,” the study’s co-author Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, told TIME. “This will only drive more unhappiness.”
What the study’s authors suggest: We recognize and accept that feeling “bad vibes” is part of the human experience. (Unless, of course, your negative feelings are overwhelming and affecting your daily life—that’s when it’s time to get help from an expert.)
Basically, the “all vibes welcome here” approach is the way to go—although that doesn’t make for the best Instagram quote.
But just letting yourself feel is easier said than done.
Here are 4 ways you can start to lean into emotional acceptance instead of emotional avoidance.
1. Greet the Feeling With Self-Compassion
The first step when you’re feeling a not-so-great emotion: Recognize how you’re feeling and how it’s tough.
Try saying to yourself: “This (insert bad feeling here) feels really tough.”
It sounds simple, but accepting our feeling takes away its power. Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., explains in Psychology Today that it’s like dealing with an undertow:
“Swimmers who are caught in an undertow and feel themselves being dragged out to sea often panic and begin to swim against the current with all their might. Often, they fatigue, cramp and drown.
To survive, such a swimmer should do the opposite—let go. Let the current take him out to sea. Within a few hundred yards the current will weaken and the swimmer can swim around and back to shore.
The same with a powerful emotion: pushing against it is futile and possibly dangerous; but if you accept the emotion, it will run its course while allowing you to run yours.”
2. Know It’s Part of Being Human
Even though Instagram might make it feel like everyone else is happy 24/7, it’s important to recognize that we all feel negative emotions—yes, even that person with 10K followers. Just recognizing that being unhappy is part of life can help us feel a little more in control.
“When our troubled, painful experiences are framed by recognition that countless others have undergone similar hardships, the blow is softened,” Kristin Neff, Ph.D., explains in her book Self-Compassion. “The pain still hurts, but it doesn’t become compounded by feelings of separation.”
Neff offers a mantra that helps her both recognize her negative feeling and see that it’s part of being human:
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.
3. Aim For ‘Deep Acting’ in Your 9-5
Our feelings don’t stop when we head to work—but there’s a way to stay true to your feelings while also feeling empowered through the work day.
In a fascinating episode of his Work Life podcast, psychologist Adam Grant and Alicia Grandey, an industrial organizational psychologist at Penn State, dived into the difference between “surface acting” and “deep acting.”
Surface acting, they explained, is like when customer service reps often pretend to feel a certain way—happy, excited, passionate—when they don’t truly feel it. “It's wearing a mask that you take off at the end of the day,” Grant explained. “It feels like the simple way to distance yourself from the role. But it creates a sense of being inauthentic, which can take a real toll.”
Deep acting is the alternative: “Instead of putting on a mask, you actually try to feel the emotion. That way, it comes out naturally,” Grant said.
Does that mean being salty to folks at work? Not necessarily. The trick is to identify what does feel authentic to you and communicate that in a way that supports your goals.
So while you may be over your manager's micromanaging, maybe you get jazzed about the people you're helping in your day-to-day. Tap that feeling to start deep acting.
4. Try Journaling
One of the best tried-and-true methods of accepting our emotions: journaling. “Journals are like a checkpoint between your emotions and the world,” Beth Jacobs, Ph.D, writes in Writing for Emotional Balance: A Guided Journal to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions.
“Just having an outlet for the negative emotions instead of it sitting in your mind or inside of you helps,” she tells Shine. “Just releasing it in writing. It’s been my form of meditation.”
After losing her father in 2016, Chanté says writing was an especially powerful tool that helped her cope with grief. “When my father first passed, I started writing letters to him every day,” she says. “It was a way for me to let out the thoughts I was thinking and also get over the fear of not being able to talk to him anymore. It helped me accept that I can still talk to him in that way and in my thoughts.”
The next time a strong emotion pops up, try putting pen to paper (or, fingers to smartphone) with an Expressive Writing exercise. Take a few minutes to just write about your feelings. One journaling framework the Greater Good Science Center recommends: try word association with your feeling.
Write down the feeling you’re experiencing (ex. stress, worry), then ask yourself:
●︎ What word or topic does it bring to mind?
●︎ What word or topic does that new one bring to mind?Keep associating new words with the feeling, and see if it starts to offer more clarity about what the feeling means to you.
If things still don’t feel crystal clear? Know that’s OK—we can’t always make sense of our emotions. But what we can do is accept them and ride them out, knowing that they’re never permanent and a part of life.
And what does that look like when it comes to #motivation Instagram? Should we feel guilty for enjoying some of those “don’t worry, be happy” posts? No, but bringing emodiversity into motivation is important, yet somewhat uncharted territory—and we’re working hard to lead that conversation here at Shine.