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Toxic Positivity is a Thing… and It Needs to Stop

Our true power lies not in cultivating some artificial sense of positivity, but in genuinely showing up in the here and now.

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In a world overloaded with inspirational quotes, daily affirmations, and endless positivity, sometimes it can seem “wrong” to feel anything less than cheerful. Buy into this relentless flow of messages promoting happiness and feeling good above all else, and we end up in a kind of spiritually anemic wasteland – a type of toxic positivity that would have us believe that emotions can fall into only one of two categories – bad or good. And, if we fail at feeling only the good ones, then we are somehow inadequate and miss out on creating an engaged and purposeful life. Sigh.

Here’s the problem with this over-simplified view of our interior lives:

The things that bring true meaning and purpose to our lives are often the same things that invite the whole array of emotions into our consciousness, even the supposedly negative ones. 

For example, think of a long-term intimate relationship, or when a person becomes a parent. These are complex life experiences that require us to be vulnerable, to step into the unknown, and brave the full array of our emotional responses. It’s totally unrealistic to assume we could orient to these types of circumstances with the goal of only feeling the “good vibes.”

Having such an expectation sets us up to miss some of the most enriching opportunities for growth and connection. How can we teach our children about emotional resiliency if we are demanding they embrace a false positivity instead of learning to deal with the world the way it is? How can we model self-acceptance and self-compassion if we are effectively denying huge parts of ourselves and deeming them unacceptable simply because those parts are less than comfortable to feel?

The rigid approach of “positivity and nothing else” is indeed toxic. It stands in direct contradiction to a path of conscious evolution, one in which we welcome in the moments of vulnerability and see them as opportunities to acknowledge and feel all of our feelings. This is how we gain wisdom in life and access to deeper layers of our own potential – by allowing ourselves to be present to full spectrum of our experiences and emotions. 

So what’s the antidote to this epidemic of toxic positivity? In a word, it’s authenticity.

Unlike the counterfeit form of enlightenment promised to us with toxic positivity, authenticity promotes a deep and potent inner-knowing, and allows us to show up in the world from a place of embodied presence no matter what emotions we are experiencing. But how exactly do we do that?

1.To be authentic, we must start with awareness.

We need to be willing to show up, stay curious, and make ourselves completely available to the present moment. When we do that, we are setting the stage to stay open to possibility and invoke the power of beginner’s mind. We refuse to make assumptions, including the assumption that certain emotions are better than others. Only then do we become truly available to listen to and receive from the experiences life is offering us.

2. With awareness intact, the next step towards authenticity is to clarify and connect with our values.

This is an essential step for making life more meaningful. When we know our values, what we want to be a stand for in this world, we can have a different orientation to our feelings. They are no longer good or bad. Instead, they are opportunities to learn more about what truly matters to us.

We tend to have the strongest emotional reactions to things that are important to us. For example, if we feel big grief about the millions of children living in poverty in our world, perhaps that is an indicator to us that we might deeply value being of service to others less fortunate than us. And as such, we can start to choose actions that align with that, which leads us to the next step.

3. Once we are clear on our values, then we can choose to act in accordance with those values to create a purpose driven-life.

Life no longer is about seeking out perpetual happiness. Instead, we choose to connect and prioritize those things that will move us further in the direction of what matters most to us.

When we have a clear connection to our inner purpose like this, we develop a much greater tolerance for the full spectrum of feelings. We don’t fear the difficult emotions any longer. Instead, we understand that each feeling we have is part of a larger process of self-discovery and self-creation. And with our values at the forefront of our mind, we feel motivated to create a life filled with meaning and passion. But the practice of authenticity doesn’t stop there.

4. To fully own our deepest truth and leave the cult of toxic positivity behind us, we must also embrace the ambiguity that inevitably comes with choosing authenticity.

As they say, the only thing certain in life is change. When we stop wasting energy trying to be in control of everything (including our emotions), we enter a more truthful relationship of co-creation with the universe. We allow ourselves to be changed by the journey as it unfolds.

This is where our true power lies – not in cultivating some artificial sense of positivity but in genuinely showing up in the here and now, clear on our values, ready to act, and willing to be changed. This is the ground from which a life of real meaning and purpose can blossom and flourish – and incidentally it’s also the place from which we truly can experience authentic happiness and fulfillment.

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