Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
- The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
The words of William Butler Yeats carry a particular breed of despair that speaks volumes to the plight of many in the modern day. It is a sense of being uprooted, like a capricious whirlwind came, unbeckoned and unforeseen, and tore away the foundation of your dreams and your hope of a future. Yeats was compelled to write his poem in the wake of the unprecedented social upheaval of his time caused by the First World War, The Russian Revolution, and The Easter Rising in Ireland. All of these events led to a crushing sense of uncertainty and unimaginable loss--not unlike the war against COVID-19 that we are waging today.
Whether you have lost a loved one, your job, or your peace of mind, I think there are only a few who can claim that the virus has left them largely unphased. I was a second-year student when the pandemic began and I could not fathom the hardship I would have to endure even from a position of relative financial security during the two years of the pandemic.
In those times where I was in the underworld of my mind, I often felt assailed by a feeling of emotional inertia where I would be stuck in either anxiety or drowsiness because confronting the cacophony of unwelcome changes and adaptations brought on by being a student with this virus was too much. In the midst of this internal struggle, I also was chagrined by a nagging injunction to be positive, to be productive, and to put my feelings to the side. If I allowed this hopelessness to weigh me down and kill me the world would permit it and march on indifferently the next day.
I had to be motivated and take control and yet, I could not. I am a person who believes with perseverance and determination alone one can triumph over any circumstance and yet there were days this term where I could not lift a finger to do anything. There was no space or time for fear, worry, regret and anguish over the changes that COVID had brought to my life. I told myself that by holding my negative emotions at bay, I could overcome them.
I know that for many of you it is the same whether you are aware of it or not. Even apart from the virus, whenever you turn on the news or look at social media, it feels like there is constantly news about a new apocalyptic event somewhere in the world or further confirmation of the prejudiced and violent side of humanity. The response of many well-intentioned people is that we ought to just stay calm and carry on and focus on what remains while the rest of the world burns.
However, this reflects the unfortunate reality that many Western societies possess an unstated enmity with negative emotion that in turn foments a corrosive and ruinous relationship with positive emotion. Psychologists like Susan David and others have used the term toxic positivity to describe this pernicious connection with positive emotion. I will endeavour in this article to expound on this concept in a way that is planted in the student experience, drawing from my own experiences as well as strategies endorsed by experts on these concepts to hopefully identify an actionable path for lasting emotional balance.
Where does Toxic Positivity Begin?
I think any discussion on toxic positivity should begin with a repudiation of the labels positive and negative itself. These markers are useful for categorization from an academic point of view but within the larger web of social forces and culturally ascribed connotations that humans must interact with they can easily become judgement laden in a hugely consequential fashion.
I will use these terms out of familiarity’s sake but qualify it by adding that I will be defining them from a psychological perspective. For this article the terms positive and negative emotion will refer to a metric known as valence which distinguishes between emotions according to how pleasant and unpleasant they are. Positively valenced emotions are more pleasant and negatively valenced emotions more unpleasant. Although this may seem a trivial distinction, it permits an isolation of the terms from notions of goodness and badness.
Without a conscious and deliberate severing of the moralistic assessments attached to these words, positive feelings, perceived as pleasant and cherished in an unceasingly moving social world, can become evaluations of the self as worthy and deserving of being seen. That is to say when you feel good, you are good and when you feel lousy, you’re a louse and should hide your contemptible form from others.
In this world of interminable progress and scrutiny, nobody wants to admit that they are struggling to hack it or darken the space with their stormy thoughts.
This pattern, however, is insidious.
Susan David, a psychologist and leading thinker on emotions, asserts that toxic positivity is a mental tyranny providing allowance for the expression of only positive emotions. It is a rigid way of thinking and feeling and as she goes on to say in her brilliant Ted-talk on the topic. This inflexibility in the wake of the complex and expansive range of feelings that humans feel is corrosive and unhelpful.
Her pithy words conveyed the timeless axiom that what is inside will come out. When you don’t allow the voices that come from a dark and howling place inside you to speak, out of fear of feeling them too strongly and facing disapproval, either from others or from other parts of yourself, they manifest themselves in other ways. What you suppress tends to amplify and ultimately subvert your desires.
I experienced this first-hand this term. Although I desperately needed to resuscitate my convictions, I could not do so with the weight of the sadness that I felt on my shoulders. What I had not come to an understanding of was that, as David says in her talk, my reluctance to listen truly and sensitively to my more distressing thoughts was disempowering me.
I needed to be hopeful and optimistic, but without acknowledging my fear and regret and the messages they carried about my truth, this urge to be “positive” was just motivational sabotage.
Why was this the case? Many psychologists have noted that all emotions have a message to say. David calls this emotional sign-posting. The things that we treasure such as safety, productivity and support are the very same spaces from which the threat of annihilation can emerge. Feelings like despair, grief, or anger are impossibly powerful bits of data signaling that we perceive something that we cherish about ourselves or in our lives is at stake or has been lost.
In a state of denial or rejection of these feelings, there is no room for faith, moral courageousness, or resilience. These positive outcomes and emotions can only emerge organically as all the parts of your core personality engage in a dialogic process of responding to their emotional counterparts.
But how does one even attempt to start that process?
A Conversation with the Better Monsters of Our Nature
As far as I can discern, one can incrementally initiate a more beneficial dynamic with all emotions, even those we would rather not feel, through these three steps:
- Emotional honesty
- Emotional granularity
- Emotional agility.
Emotional honesty refers simply to allowing yourself to feel everything that you are without any attempts to embellish or sugar-coat. This is the seat of accountability and healing.
Emotional granularity is the skill of labelling and describing your feelings with a high degree of specificity and attention to the nuances in the way they come into being.
For example, the broad category of sadness may in part describe how you feel as a result of a project or relationship that fell apart due to COVID. However, a closer lens may reveal a demoralization or even indignance at the injustice of being robbed of a significant opportunity or bond that feels like just sadness on the surface.
As you might imagine, these two sentiments are quite different from one another but even subtle distinctions in the properties of your emotions can spur different responses. On a more positive note, you could probe yourself to see if you are just happy or feeling heartened or thankful.
The crux of the matter is that living in the wholeness of your being and preparing yourself to take remedial action requires a level of linguistic and attentional precision to your moods and automatic styles of thinking.
Studies have shown that emotional granularity practiced through monitoring bodily sensations and keeping diaries to chronicle your feelings not only improve an individual's acute grasp on their feelings but reduce arousal to stressors.
The emotional repertoire we possess is robust and multidimensional and it is in our interest to parse them out, even the uglier ones.
In other words, our negative emotions aren’t Saturday Morning Cartoon villains, they warrant--no, they demand--our curious study. If we surrender before the most powerful impulses created by negative emotions it can lead to destruction; we need positive feelings to broaden the way we think and act to solve our problems and to make life worth living. Simultaneously, negative emotions are an inevitable and important communication between the world and our internal compass of meaning and virtue.
In her writings, Susan David has outlined concrete steps to enacting a process of managing your thoughts and feelings as well as gaining critical insights from them to limit any dissonance between your values, actions, and experiences. This is emotional agility.
I will share the tactic that has been notably helpful for my situation as a student and that is the act of externalizing potentially treacherous emotions with my mind’s eye directed to the content of their messages. That is the process of regarding the feelings of anxiety, anger, and jealousy as a phenomenon occurring inside me--not to me or subsuming me. The use of language like “I am noticing X feeling and I think I am feeling Y… vs I am X feeling” is vital to the creation of this psychic distance.
Furthermore, given the knowledge that negative emotions are not an emblem of my inferiority but of human and legitimate responses to what is going on in my world, it is easier to reduce the tension between them and the emotions that impel me to be tenacious, succeed, and flourish.
The mental policeman who seeks to quash and stifle has begun to learn how to give the stage to the gentle counselor who seeks to see, reconcile, and move forward.
A metaphor that you can use in your own life is that of an audio engineer tinkering with the emotional spectrum as the range of potential sounds at your disposal. Every note has something to add. The more discordant tunes may attempt to envelop you and fill you with disquiet but they are not you. It is the diligent work of harmonizing these messages from both positive and negative emotion in response to our life challenges that allows us to make great strides in tapping into our potential.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I have chosen to conclude by imparting the imperishable wisdom of the words of Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl. as his words perfectly encapsulate the ethos with which this article was written. If we exert our volition to hold all feelings within the space of our awareness, negotiate relations with them calmly and with our best interests in mind, we may yet discover the antidote to toxic positivity and the boldness to hold ourselves together when everything seems like it is falling apart.