This past year has been very challenging, to say the least. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some people in the personal development sphere acting like all you need to do is Think Positive, as if breaking down and struggling with fear and grief and anger is some kind of character flaw.

It’s not. It’s human.

On the flip side, there’s also been the backlash against this so-call Toxic Positivity. People accuse the Don’t Worry, Be Happy crew of being self-centered and lacking in empathy, yet that, too, is overly simplistic.

See, sometimes the reason people shy away from acknowledging heavier, “negative” emotions isn’t because they don’t care. It’s because they care too much, and they’re afraid that if they allow themselves to feel the lurking fear, grief, anger, shame, and/or guilt, they’ll drown in it. I call this type of avoidance Fearful Positivity.

What’s the difference between Toxic Positivity and Fearful Positivity?

Toxic Positivity comes from the head. It’s driven by judgment and Shoulds instead of curiosity and compassion. However, the Shoulds that it tries to perpetuate are unrealistic and, frankly, shallow. Life is complicated. It’s full of highs and lows, joy and sorrow. When we try to cut out or suppress our authentic feelings, it flattens our experience and cuts us off from fully living.

Fearful Positivity comes from the gut. It’s an instinctive desire to “keep us safe” from being overwhelmed. The problem is that, even more than simply “flattening our experience,” shoving down these types of feared emotions can build up tension inside us, causing pressure to build until sometimes the littlest things can set us off.

In contrast to both of these, Healthy Positivity comes from the heart. It acknowledges that yeah, sometimes Life really sucks, but it’s not all bad. Healthy Positivity is about finding the balance between seeking out things you can do to make life better and making your peace with what is out of your control. It’s about crying over sorrows and laughing in delight, knowing that one doesn’t cancel out the other, and it’s the co-existence of the two that deepens the richness of your life.

So what can you do to make sure that your own approach to Positivity is healthy?

  • Check for deflections or constrictions around strong emotions. Do you find yourself thinking, “He/She/I shouldn’t feel that way” ?
  • Take a deep breath. Choose compassion towards yourself and others. Imagine sending love to those who are hurting and, perhaps more importantly, those parts of yourself most in need of a hug.
  • If you’re afraid of getting sucked under, try creating rituals around the expression of heavier emotions to give yourself a safe container to let it out.
  • Release guilt and Shoulds and allow yourself to be yourself in all your messy glory.

And, of course, look for things that are good in the world. I call the photo accompanying this essay The Beauty of Dying Roses, and it illustrates how loveliness and grace can emerge from the midst of Life’s sorrows.

Choose kindness, remember to breathe, and take each moment as it comes. 

You’ve got this.