Skip to content

Toxic Positivity and Emotions

January 10, 2024

My day, in fact, the month was not going “right.” Nothing was going as planned! The organization cut funding to the program I was working on; I didn’t have any other work lined up. The current program had been taking up most of my time. I felt like I was left stranded on a deserted island with an oar in my hand and my boat drifting out to sea.  

I was shocked when the director told me about the funding cuts. Tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t know what to say. 

“Oh, it will all work out for the best.”

“There are plenty of other jobs out there for you.”

“Just let it go and move on.”

When I told my friends and family about the situation, those were their consoling words. I didn’t feel consoled. 

Instead of acknowledging my sadness and disappointment about the situation, I bottled it up. I forged on. I brushed up my resume, looked on websites for positions to apply and reached out to organizations for leads. I did everything I could not to face the emotions I was bottling up within me.

Do you have a hard time confronting your emotions? I have been working on this skill for years, and it doesn’t come easy. I pushed them away and bottled them up until someone drilled a little hole in the bottom of the bottle that I kept my emotion stored by asking me, how do you feel about this? Fine. How are you really feeling? That little hole gave way to naming sadness, disappointment, and anger. This is real progress for me: naming my emotions, feeling the feelings, and being brave to share. 

In the past, I would bottle the emotions up until I blew! My bottle top would release over a tiny mishap. I would be left standing in a puddle of pain that I had caused someone else because of my bottled-up emotions. 

Many of us have a difficult time with difficult emotions. Some people brood over the emotions, changing them into anxiety and worry. Others, like me, bottle the feelings up until they blow.

Susan David, in her book Emotional Agility, describes Brooders and Bottlers.

Brooders can’t let go, and they struggle to compartmentalize as they obsess over a hurt, a perceived failure, a shortcoming, or an anxiety.

Bottlers try to unhook from the emotion by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things.

Which one are you?

Not all things positive are helpful.

When we set the goal of being happy, our level of happiness decreases. The denial of our difficult emotions is keeping us from feeling happiness. This behavior is toxic positivity. 

Just like my family and friends in my situation, they wanted to be helpful. They thought the statements they were saying were uplifting. Actually, they were discounting my emotions. 

Sitting with someone else who is having a difficult time is uncomfortable. When we are positive in a seemingly bad situation, brushing aside the complicated feelings, we deny real-life experiences. Embrace the discomfort and move through the complex emotions. When you come out of the other side, there will be the happiness you so deserve.

As leaders, teachers, and parents, we need to be responsible for growing and modeling the skills that will support our children and youth to be resilient. Letting go of the need to be happy in difficult moments and letting ourselves feel the emotions is both growing your resilience and modeling it for future generations.

Try This

  1. Using a list of emotions (download here), start to check in with yourself and identify your emotional state. I suggest doing this at different times throughout the day. This check-in will help you identify your emotions when a difficult situation arises. Emotions are not bad or good; they are just human experiences. 
  1. When working with children and youth, help them to name their emotions. Ask routinely to describe a time when they felt a particular emotion. When the child has big emotions, sit with them and help them name their emotion by guessing. Use statements like “I wonder if you are feeling ________, or I am curious if you are feeling ___________. Naming the Emotion to Tame the Emotion is a helpful life skill.