Toxic positivity is a mindset that I am very familiar with. For years, perfectionism and toxic positivity plagued my thoughts and inner world. This way of thinking affected how I viewed myself and interacted with others. My thinking patterns were suffocating and anxiety-inducing. I lived from a place of fear, doubt and anger.
I am writing these words for others who may relate to feeling weighed down by perfectionism and toxic positivity. You are seen and validated. I am also writing these words to my younger self. I so badly wanted to hear that I could let go of the control that I was clinging to so tightly.
Holding a positive attitude and having hope for the future are important contributions to inner peace and happiness. Seeing the beauty in each situation, acknowledging and savoring joyful moments, and having faith during dark times is valuable. However, when we refuse to acknowledge difficult emotions and situations, we are closed-off to true healing. It is important to acknowledge, observe, sit with, and release difficult emotions, not ignore or suppress them.
Toxic positivity is described as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.” Believing that we have to be in a constant state of joy, elation, or positivity is invalidating our difficult feelings and experiences. Toxic positivity can be especially damaging when used to dismiss and invalidate mental illness and mental health struggles.
To read more about the signs and effects of toxic positivity, look here!
It is Okay to Feel it All!
As humans, we are expected to experience the full range of emotions (even ones that feel overwhelming and difficult). When undesired emotions arise, acknowledge them, observe them, and ask what we are meant to learn. It is possible to feel your feelings, AND not let them consume you!
It is uncomfortable to sit in emotional pain, heartache, or hardship. This is why I think we try so hard to dismiss these feelings and sensations as soon as they appear. In the past, when I did not feel happy or joyful, I thought that I was bad or wrong for feeling that way. I would then become consumed by my regularly-scheduled shame spiral. I would say hurtful things to myself and felt so ashamed of expressing any kind of anger, sadness, or complaint. In my mind, I was never allowed to have a bad day
I would rather be whole than goodCarl Jung
Perfectionism and Positivity
Ironically, through clinging so tightly to my fear of expressing difficult emotions, I lashed out at those who were closest to me. I was always tense, defensive, and on-edge. I also expected those around me to be perfect. What a heavyweight to carry! My perfectionism put a strain on my relationships because I was not allowing myself (or the other person) to be authentic and free of judgment.
Toxic positivity and perfectionism do not allow us to embrace our whole, human experience or difficult emotions at all. Sometimes, difficult emotions and experiences can be the catalyst to beauty and change in our lives. For example, if we feel as though we are only allowed to express “good vibes” all the time, even when we do not feel that way genuinely, we are denying the opportunity to be fully and authentically human. We are not robots that reside in one state of being.
Much of my anxiety came from believing that I was only valued and loved for being a “happy” and “positive” person. This was a lonely and isolating feeling because I felt as though I was the only person who felt the weight of needing to be “perfect” and spread “positive vibes only.” I carried this weight of never being able to flourish as a well-rounded, emotional human being. I did not know yet that I could be deeply loved and appreciated as the imperfect, messy, beautiful human that I am (that we all are).
My Turning Point
After years of carrying the weight of perfectionism and anxiety, I experienced something that allowed me to re-evaluate how I chose to view myself and the world. It went like this:
My card declined when I was checking out at Target. I could not figure out why so I asked one of the employees for help. While she tinkered with the self-checkout screen, I glanced over my shoulder to see a giant line starting to form. My face turned red instantly. Embarrassment set in for holding up the line.
I immediately fell into a shame-spiral, mentally beating myself up for being such a bother. I could feel my palms getting sweaty and my heart racing. All of a sudden, I felt a pit in my stomach. The next thing I remember is waking up on the cold tile floor of Target, with about ten concerned faces looking down at me. I asked what happened, and a nice woman to my right explained that I had passed out. They thought I was having a seizure.
I went to the ER and the doctor told me that my body was healthy. I did not know why I had passed out. Before I left the house, I ate and drank water. I did not feel sick before the incident. When I went to the neurologist, he gave me insight into why I passed out. With this information, I realized how much anxiety led to stress in my mind and body.
A neurologist explained that I could be experiencing Vasovagal Syncope.
By definition, vasovagal Syncope is “a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure leading to fainting, often in reaction to a stressful trigger.” To put it simply, it is a way that the body has evolved to protect itself when it senses danger, similar to our fight-flight-or-freeze response.
I learned that my body and nervous system become extra heightened when faced with stressful situations. It was comforting to learn that this is why, most of my life, I would easily disassociate when I was afraid, nervous, or stressed. The neurologist that I saw explained that it could be important for me to reduce my anxiety and stress as much as possible.
This experience was a wake-up call and definitely changed my perspective. I was ready to embrace healing and release the pressure that I was carrying so that I could live freely and as my whole self. It was time for me to realize that I could face situations knowing that I was strong and capable. I was ready to release perfectionism and knew that I could learn to be kind to myself. The first step? Give myself permission to release toxic positivity and learn from mistakes. I do not need to become engulfed by shame for being human.
A Work in Progress
Journey to Genuine Peace
I decided to dedicate time to cultivating inner peace and releasing perfectionism. I became more intentional about my thinking and began observing my perfectionistic thoughts, one moment at a time. Once I began recognizing them, I challenged them. I had the ability to observe my thoughts and emotions. My anxious thoughts no longer had to consume me. I am still a work in progress, but I have learned to slow down and let go of thoughts that don’t serve me. And I am continuing to grow in this area, more and more each day.
Re-framing has been a helpful intervention for me to practice. This practice is a way of assigning a new meaning to thoughts and experiences. Re-framing is not “looking on the bright side” or invalidating a difficult experience. It is a way to shift your perspective and assign meaning that is helpful rather than hurtful. This technique also helps to lessen perceived stress and re-evaluate thoughts that stem from perfectionism.
People’s opinions and perceptions of me were my main focus.
I wanted to control people’s perception of me, wanting them to think that I was always happy, smiling, and positive. Obviously, people knew that was not the case. Letting go of the need to control people’s perceptions of me was monumental for my inner peace. Of course, constructive criticism is important. I love when those close to me point out how I need to grow. AND I have accepted that I am in charge of my life and my actions, not the thoughts and ideas of others. I’ve learned that it’s okay to live life how I want to and accept that not everybody will agree. I create the life that I desire!
Everyday Practices to Soothe the Soul
Since the beginning of this personal shift and my attempt to let go of perfectionism and toxic positivity, I have acquired some intentional practices, activities, and mantras that I try to repeat regularly.
- Meditation– I enjoy this quick one for self-soothing and allowing yourself to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
- Affirmations and Mantras– “It is okay to make mistakes. I am enough. Trust myself. I am loved and cherished just as I am. I love and accept who/where I am.”
- Encouraging Podcasts- Checkout The We Podcast for honest conversation with authentic women, to remind yourself that you are not alone.
- Breathing– Make time throughout your day to breathe with intention. Practicing breathing exercises helps me when I need to slow down, re-evaluate my thoughts, and listen to my body.
- Letting go- Give yourself permission to let go of thoughts that do not serve you. You do not need to be perfect to be loved. I release anxious, fearful, and perfectionistic thoughts, to make room for peace and love.
- Reflecting- I enjoy observing my thoughts through journaling honestly and openly
- Therapy- Do not be afraid to ask for help. It is okay to need support!
- Acceptance- Accept that healing takes time, that you are a masterpiece and a work-in-progress. You are a whole human being. Happiness is not a constant state. Embrace the imperfections along your journey!
For People of Color and Allies
I would like to include this note specifically to People of Color and those fighting for equality and justice. It is important to acknowledge the pain and heaviness that comes with experiencing racism: directly, indirectly, generationally, etc. Of course, it is important to have hope for the future. To continue to fight for equality and justice. And to acknowledge the positive change that is hopefully to come. AND do not push away your exhaustion, pain, sadness, confusion. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel. You are going to mess up while advocating for change. That is okay. It is okay to take a break. It is okay to cry and to feel angry and tired. Allow yourself space to embrace each part of the human experience, and your experience as a Person of Color living in America.
I hope that sharing my experience with toxic positivity and perfectionism has helped you along your journey, where ever you may be. Thank you for taking the time to read my words with an open heart. Remember to have grace for yourself and those around you. Keep learning and keep growing.