Toxic Positivity: The Shaming of True Intimacy and How We Traumatize Feeling
The capacity to experience a full range of feelings is at the core of mental health. It’s how relationships with ourselves, Others, and the world are built and brought into existence. Our neoliberal capitalistic culture, deeply rooted in rugged individualism, tells us the opposite; that we should stand on our own two feet, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, get out there and make something of ourselves, and most toxically- don’t show emotions or weakness. Our health, biologically and psychologically, literally require Others- and the best way we can connect to them is with our emotions- all of them. To ignore or deny a certain set of feelings is a dishonest and traumatic message to internalize over and over at work, at home, and in relationships. This is the most real and honest part of us being shamed, even weaponized and used against us. Our feelings are what make us human, and are the most special part of us. Toxic positivity is the violent idea that we should hide, minimize, or deny any feelings that aren’t “positive”.
American culture is obsessed with uniformity, assimilation, and conformity. It’s common to pathologize differences as disorders, body shame diversity, and police gender. Most of us are familiar hearing microaggressions that flaunt xenophobia and racism, and religious leaders and politicians still openly promote trans and homophobia proudly. We don’t know how to encounter diversity or creativity without projecting our fear and anxieties upon it by seeing it as bad or wrong. Yet mental health, and more importantly actual confidence, mandates that we are exactly who we are authentically. There is no valor or mental health in conformity; it’s also dishonest. Its anti-relationship and intimacy.
Intimacy, or true relationship, is when we share all of ourselves with an Other. Not just the acceptable, attractive or safe parts. But more powerfully our uglier, weaker, more vulnerable pieces that make us feel uneasy. We feel more connected and far closer after conversations where we opened up, got raw, and revealed real honest parts of who we are and what we are thinking and feeling.
We have clinical syndromes that honor the need for full emotional expression and a person’s ability to access, connection, and fully feel all feelings. Alexithymia is when you cannot identify and fully feel your feelings. It leads to mental health difficulties, flatness of life, and relationships that feel topical and lacking of intimacy. The solution: feel more. Feel deeply. Express all feelings. Not just positive ones, but the ones we shame as being negative too.
But the value of full emotional expression goes far beyond just the relational experience it helps create. It’s also how we protect ourselves from traumatization. Definitions of trauma all contain the awareness that “trapped emotion” and “disconnection” from Others are toxic and weaken our nervous system and capacities to feel safe. Emotional repression is not emotional resolution, its’ just sidestepping the important psychological work. And there is no growth in that, it’s just more shame and dysregulation. Therapy and healing are all about full emotional embodiment and expression, not denial and dissociation.
In current “Corona Culture”, I want people to express all of their feelings, and not just “think positive” or “look on the bright side”, because to illegitimize feelings is mentally unhealthy and also really patronizing and victim blaming. Often bad things are happening, and there is no reason to emotionally bypass reality because the listener isn’t emotionally able to tolerate sitting with deep intimacy and closeness. Denial of feelings leads to extreme loneliness, as we feel like we aren’t truly seen or heard. Our “broken parts” are often the most beautiful parts of us. Healed only when we reveal them, and not when we hide them due to shame; shame that’s not even ours, but projected onto us by the discomfort of Others.
Driven by naive pop psychology, culture has perpetuated the notion that mental health is about tone policing. We label as mentally disordered if a person feels too much, or feels too little, or for too long, with the expectation being that we live emotionally in some magical middle ground of digestibility for those around us. The expectation being that our mental health is a reflection of the opinions of those around us. But in a culture so afraid of honest emotional expression, how could that ever be a good barometer for anything?
So no, don’t ruminate all day in “negative” feeling states, but also don’t do the same for “positive” ones either. Just live honestly, because it ok to not feel ok, and its ok to be where you are emotionally. There are no “bad emotions”, and we shouldn’t carry the weight of cultural evaluation and expectations of how we “should” feel. I’m eager to get to a place where we can cry at work, cry in public, cry as men, and have it all be seen as healthy and beautiful. Toxic positivity denies us this journey and keeps is trapped and limited.