Toxic Positivity and Radical Acceptance
Those who follow this blog have seen me rail against toxic positivity. When it’s not absurd, it’s insulting to those of us with mood disorders. No, we can’t just cheer up. If we could look at the bright side, we wouldn’t have depression or anxiety. You may be able to choose happiness, but I can’t. I’ve needed medication and therapy just to feel meh at times. If I could turn bipolar disorder off like a light switch, don’t you think I’d do it?
Toxic positivity can be seen nearly everywhere, in a lot of different situations: the self-help movement, of course, but also business, medicine, and even religion – as well as endless memes. American society is rife with toxic positivity. It appears in motivational business conventions and TED Talks. Salespeople are advised to think positively and envision success. Breast cancer survivors are advised to keep a positive attitude, to the extent that they are encouraged to tell how the disease has had a positive effect on their lives and relationships. (Expressions of fear, anger, and other natural emotions in response to the diagnosis are downplayed or discouraged.) Religions can exhort us to count our blessings or “manifest” our wants and needs by using positive thoughts to attract them.
Positivity becomes toxic when it is seen as the only method of coping with problems in life, even ones that have other solutions or none. Toxic positivity presents relentless cheer as the only acceptable reaction and a panacea for every difficulty. And toxic positivity leads people to demand that others take up the mindset and apply it to every situation, even devastating ones. As such, it denies the reality of human suffering and normal emotional responses. It’s a form of non-acceptance.
So, what is the alternative? What is a more natural – but still effective – technique for dealing with difficulties? How can those of us who have mood disorders or any other brain illness find ways to navigate through life without slapping on a smile and coercing our emotions to fit a certain mold?
Radical acceptance is one answer. Radical acceptance means that you accept your inner feelings and your outward circumstances as they are, especially if they are not under your control. You acknowledge reality without trying to impose a set of emotional mandates on it. Your acceptance and acknowledgment may involve pain or discomfort, but those are understandable, normal human conditions. They are natural conditions that evoke a natural response.
Rooted in Buddhist teachings and given a name by Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who developed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), radical acceptance uses mindfulness to help people learn to face and regulate their emotions. Interestingly, one 2018 study found that accepting your negative emotions without judgment is a factor in psychological health.
With radical acceptance, when you encounter difficult situations and emotions, you note their presence without trying to suppress them. You accept them, as the name implies. This attitude can address – and reduce – feelings of shame and distress that you may feel, especially when you are not able to simply shut off those feelings and replace them with positivity. That doesn’t mean that you wallow in unpleasant feelings or allow unfortunate circumstances to stunt your responses.
Instead, you note the feelings – accept that they exist – and “hold space” for them within you. You appreciate that your emotions can lead you to new understandings of and reactions to your circumstances. For example, instead of adhering to the unattainable maxim that “Failure is not an option,” you can recognize when you have indeed failed and accept it as a natural part of life. You can then move on to a mindset of growth where you use that failure to inform your future actions. You develop a more accurate picture of the world and can begin implementing real solutions.
Of course, there are situations where radical acceptance is not appropriate. Abusive situations, for one, shouldn’t simply be accepted without being addressed. But neither will positive thinking resolve them. They require action, from seeking help from a trusted individual to leaving the situation to contacting law enforcement or an organization that can help.
But in other circumstances, radical acceptance may be an answer for some. For myself, I’ll just be satisfied if radical acceptance helps drive out toxic positivity. I don’t think it will, but a person can dream.