It’s Okay to Not Be Okay—How to Ditch Toxic Positivity and Embrace All Your Emotions

Honor thy feelings.

By Riley Reed

Earlier this year, a dear family friend who I considered an uncle passed away suddenly from a freak bike accident. My sister and I were together when we got the call three days before my marriage ceremony. We were riddled with shock, sadness, and anger. We were not okay. Our uncle was one of the best people we’d ever known, revered in the community; the kind of person who made you feel like you were the only person in the room when he talked to you. I had two contradictory thoughts: he didn’t deserve to die, and this world wasn’t good enough for him.

I’ll never forget sitting on my sister’s bedroom floor with her hand in mine. She was distraught. I was too, but she’s my baby sister and thus, her feelings took precedence. She told me how upset she was. I looked at her and said, “That’s okay. Be upset. You are allowed to feel everything.”

This is the lesson that I’ve learned from 2020: it is okay to not be okay. Leaning into your emotions is healthy; it’s shoving them under the rug that gets you into trouble. I once heard that your thoughts are like birds flying overhead, you can control whether they nest or not. To criticize your feelings is to think about them. Stop doing that! (me talking to me.)

There are ways to honor your feelings. It starts with acknowledgment. Here’s how to ditch toxic positivity and embrace all of your emotions.

The “Positive Vibes” Trend Drives Me Crazy

We are living in unprecedented times. Humanity has never faced the swirl of hardships our society is weathering. We are surviving a pandemic, widespread global social unrest, economic devastation, and a planet that has had enough of the harm we’ve caused. All that to say: if you are feeling bad, there is nothing wrong with you. This moment in time is stirring up a lot within all of us, individually and collectively. We are not broken. We are human.

However, oftentimes emotions are labeled as positive or negative–things to fix or things to keep. Sadness, anxiety, anger, and grief are viewed as inherently wrong rather than undeniable parts of being human.

Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist, and trained cognitive behavior therapist explains that toxic positivity is, “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or—my pet peeve term— positive vibes.’”

Okay, So What Does That Mean?

Remember that time something horrible happened in your life and you got text messages like: “It will all work out in the end.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Look on the bright side!” Cringe.

Cultivating a positive attitude is powerful but toxic positivity comes from the concept that the only way to cope with a negative situation is to put a positive spin on it. It essentially says that mental health issues, whether situational or behavioral, are that of the weak-minded. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: it is okay to not be okay. Embrace this beautiful, imperfect experience and you will find yourself reaping the benefits of simply being alive, even amongst the pain.

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”—Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

You Will Be Uncomfortable

Actively processing your emotions is not comfortable. Let’s look at yoga as an example. It teaches us to lean into the discomfort of a pose to release the hold it has on us. It seems contradictory but we’ve all been there—whether you’re running up a steep hill or balancing in crow pose, there is a moment where your mind will just let go.

The practice isn’t asking you to get stuck in your pain nor to neglect it completely. Rather, yoga teaches that the only way out is through. That process is incomplete without non-judgment. Instead, we must lead with self-compassion and loving-kindness in an effort to surrender.

Pain Is Impermanent

Remember, feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We only have so much control over their journey. For that reason, it’s so important to control what we can: our routines, our behaviors, and our choices. Amidst that effort, giving ourselves grace and recognizing that our pain doesn’t define us is crucial. It is temporary. It is a reality of our existence. Giving it any more power than that will then give it power over us.

One of my favorite excerpts on this very topic comes from Holly Whitaker’s book, Quit Like A Woman. She says:

“I once heard Pema Chodron explain that no emotion lasts longer than 90 seconds. You heard that right: no emotion we feel lasts longer than a minute and a half if we let it run its course without interference. Emotions, the result of chemical response to a thought, appear, intensify, de-intensify, and subside: and they do this in less time than it takes to microwave a frozen burrito. What prolongs them isn’t emotional wiring gone awry but the stories we lay on top of them that keep our brains dumping more of those chemicals into our system.

A prolonged emotional experience is the result of the stories we keep alive in our heads.”

We Are in This Together

The relationship you have with yourself is oftentimes mirrored in the relationships you develop with others. We are all existing here together. We owe it to each other to recognize the power of collectiveness. That effort begins with us, individually.

If you deny your emotions, you are denying your truth and thus living inauthentically. By diminishing your connection to yourself, you are making yourself less available to bond with others in meaningful ways. You need yourself and we need each other now more than ever. I invite you to embrace your emotional well being, despite its imperfections. It is okay.

When Consulting a Friend or Family Member, Here Are Some Phrases to Avoid… (examples of toxic positivity)

  • Positive vibes only!
  • It could be worse.
  • Just smile, stop worrying!
  • What’s there to cry about? It’ll be fine.
  • You have so much going for you; how can you be upset?
  • Get over it.
  • Don’t worry. Be happy!

Here Are Some Phrases to Consider… (examples of non-toxic acceptance and validation)

  • It is okay to not feel okay right now.
  • You should feel whatever emotions you want to feel.
  • Take your time. I am with you and I’m listening.
  • You’re allowed to feel this way. Your feelings are valid.
  • Describe what you’re feeling. I’m listening.
  • I see that you’re stressed, anything I can do?
  • Failure is apart of growth and success.