Difficult emotions are there for a reason. There is one cure for toxic positivity.
“Good Vibes Only.” It’s a T-shirt slogan meant to invite joy and positivity, but it has a shadow, too. Feeling a little down or tired today? Insecure about your weight? What about generally anxious about living in a pandemic? If you’ve got a hint of any bad vibes, you are not welcome here, in this place where only good vibes are acknowledged and seen.
Positivity becomes toxic when an overfocus on rainbows and flowers leads to bypassing necessary emotions and experiences. Difficult emotions are there for a reason. When we are given no space at all to process them, we cannot integrate them. Insisting that we always look at the positive side of life can be helpful for some people some of the time, but it can also cause harm.
Our brains want to make sure we notice when something isn’t right so that we can correct for it—or keep ourselves out of danger. More than half of our seven basic core emotions could be classified as “bad vibes.” We’ve got joy, excitement, and sexual arousal, which are fun, but then there’s sadness, fear, anger, and disgust.
Each of these emotions, plus the many more we can experience on a day-to-day level, have a purpose. Sadness wants us to slow down, be held, and process a loss. Anger wants us to stand up for our needs or boundaries. Fear tells us to get away from that charging tiger. And disgust tells us that something in our physical or emotional environment is toxic—like, for example, that excess of positive vibes.
So much of the work I have done as a yoga and meditation practitioner, especially in recovering from trauma, has been about reconnecting to the full range of who I am as a human person. I’ve had to do a lot of work around accepting and forgiving my past selves, my weaknesses, and my failings. Holding myself with love and acceptance not only in my joy and delight but perhaps even more tenderly in my sadness, anger, and shame has been a major key to surviving and thriving in my life.
The antidote to toxic positivity is true love. This isn’t starry-eyed romantic love—it’s unconditional acceptance and care, no matter how ugly things get. It certainly helps if we have people in our lives who love us like this, but the real meat of the practice is about loving ourselves in this way. When we can stay present and stay kind while also taking responsibility for our mistakes, we have something much deeper than the hashtag #goodvibesonly. We have a healthy, loving relationship with ourselves that will last until the day we die.
Self-love is not a given—at least, not for most of us. Some of us learned how to treat ourselves and other people with unconditional kindness in childhood, but for many others, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Self-love is a practice we can do as adults to take care of our bodies, to follow our joy, and to pay close attention to our bad vibes when they have something to tell us.
When we can make room for all of our parts, all of our flaws, and all of our vibes, we teach ourselves what true self-love can really look like. Mature love includes acceptance and honesty, and toxic positivity does not allow for either. When we practice engaging with our shadows, we learn how good they can be at guiding us back to the light. We can enjoy our lives, celebrate ourselves, and bask in good vibes, not because we’ve rejected the rest, but precisely because we know how to hold it all with tenderness. That’s when we can enjoy a different way of being: #allvibesalways.