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The Culture of Toxic Positivity, Self-Help & Trauma – Pt. 1

I had an eye-opening encounter recently with a clerk at one of the local stores where I shop for household needs. She and I had exchanged pleasantries in the past, but on this day, she seemed to be struggling with a heavy emotional burden. When I told her I could see that she had something on her mind and asked how she felt about sharing, she hesitated briefly, searching my face for a safe sign to speak freely, then opened up slowly. She started to tell me that she was feeling confused and somewhat defeated over all the changes affecting her physically and mentally as a result of getting older. I smiled and nodded in agreement, told her I was dealing with the same issues and from there the conversation took off running!

We were having a good time trading stories and comparing notes – discussing what was or wasn’t helping to make a difference in our various symptoms – and I could see the relief in her eyes just from having the conversation with someone who could relate to what she had been experiencing. She admitted grieving the loss of her youth and being both surprised and overwhelmed by just how much was rapidly changing that she had little to no control over. I shared my regret and embarrassment over not having a clue until now of what my mom and other loved ones must’ve endured amid ignorance, indifference and a lack of openness. We laughed and even cried a little together right there in the aisle where she was stocking shelves, and there was no one around to interrupt the rich connection being made.

It was a naturally flowing, unpretentious interaction that brought a moment of light illuminating the darkness we both had been facing separately. Not long afterwards, however, came another customer who also knew the clerk. In what seemed like a split second, that customer made a remark that changed the whole trajectory of both the clerk’s mood and mine: “Wow…you’re actually smiling! It’s good to see you being positive for a change! Don’t lose that energy and keep up the good work.”

Did you know that there is an entire self-help social movement advocating and celebrating this type of remark? “Recently, the term toxic positivity has crept into discussions about the folly of glossing over negative events, feelings, worries, and concerns with platitudes.” Advocates of this “positive energy only” movement tend to paint over the canvas of life’s difficulties with a broad yet shallow, surface level brush of hope. This is a false and extremely dangerous approach for anyone to take when managing negative emotions, especially considering the fact that many of us are carrying the burden of unresolved trauma in our minds.

Words hurt – even well-intentioned ones. (James 3:7-10) Imagine if a complete stranger were to approach you and tell you to smile after you’ve just received devastating news about a personal loss. Would you be inclined to oblige, politely decline, or would you say or do anything at all? You might be utterly confused, shocked or even angered because the timing and delivery was off-putting. Reason might dictate that you stand up for yourself and speak out. Or, you might just decide to retreat from the scene to allow yourself a moment to privately process the feelings you are having without a second thought of the insensitive suggestion. But if you tend to internalize by nature, you may be a bit annoyed and aggravated that this perfect stranger who had no idea of what you were going through got a glimpse of the surface expression of your pain and mishandled it. Maybe you’d be better off just keeping it all to yourself. What then do you do with the pain of your loss and the lingering negative emotions from the unwelcome encounter?

The toxic positivity approach carelessly marginalizes those of us who simply want to be heard and understood as we work through our honest emotions. It is a manipulative and deceptive New Age phenomenon that distorts reality, opposes biblical truth and hurts us by disconnecting us from one another. It is a deluded pattern of thinking fueled by the erroneous Law of Attraction that emphasizes “manifesting happiness” – or the idea that positive thoughts and actions will automatically parlay into reaping positive rewards. In short, if you wear a smile and feign optimism no matter how you feel or what life throws at you, life will be better. God’s word admonishes us against this practice (Romans 16:17, 18) and encourages us to focus on protecting and cultivating our thoughts (Proverbs 4:23). It reminds us that we need not hide anything we feel from God, that we can trust Him, safely bringing all our thoughts and emotions to Him (Psalm 31) and that He will rescue us as we receive and walk in His grace (Psalm 37:5).

Do you remember the practice of running drills in grade school physical education classes or as an athlete in sports practice? The gym teacher or coach would have you complete repetitive sets of exercises or actions, and you would practice them daily. Over time, the goal was to not only teach you a new skill, but most importantly to help you hone & perfect that skill in order to become disciplined in the habit of daily exercise for better health, have increased agility and stamina, and strengthen and build your muscles to protect your body against sudden impact and injury.

On the playing field of life, the way we have been trained to think and process our emotions is the most important skill we have in our arsenal for dealing with unresolved trauma. Unfortunately, most of us never received adequate training concerning our own emotions and how to respond to the emotions of others. As a result, we are unskilled in the habit of daily exercising our thoughts to monitor the health of our emotions, quickening our ability to remain flexible, shifting our focus to the bigger picture, thereby increasing the strength of our mental muscle to endure & protect us against prolonged periods of stress, pressure and uncertainty that negatively impact and injure our minds.

When sudden changes and losses occur, it is too late to practice how we will respond in real time. As real people living real lives, we are going to encounter real pain, suffering and loss. When we think of pain, suffering and loss, many times we often limit our thinking to the most common event we all grieve: the death of a loved one. However, grief has many more faces/degrees of intensity and intersects every age and stage of our lives. Regardless of the level of grief, the way we handle ourselves and one another through these encounters matters to God who cares deeply about our natural emotional responses to them all. (Romans 12:15; 2 Corinthians 12:9) So how is it then that we have become so insensitive to our own journey and the different journeys of others? One reason may be that we are not ourselves fully aware, literate and mindful of the varying types of losses (besides death) that disrupt or challenge life as we know it.

Here are a few of the life circumstances where we may encounter grief (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list – feel free to consider what else qualifies based on your own personal life experiences):

  • Job Loss, Career change or Retirement

  • Parental Neglect/Abandonment/Abuse

  • Loss of sense of personal safety due to Domestic Violence/Abuse

  • Financial hardships and losses

  • The natural process of aging (Diminishing health, Cognitive decline, Menopause, etc.)

  • Changes in the mind and body from Chronic Illness and Autoimmune disorders

  • Health changes of a loved one/Caregiver stress/burden

  • Faith, Identity and Life Purpose

  • Being uprooted -- Relocating to an unfamiliar place/loss of community

  • Loss of a home or personal possessions

  • Loss of a beloved pet

  • The end of a friendship or romantic relationship

  • Children leaving home/Empty nesting

  • Divorce and Marital Separation including those from stigmatized relationships

  • Miscarriage and Infertility

  • Bullying and other forms of Social Ostracism or Rejection

  • Incarceration

  • Combat/War

Which of these losses have you or someone you care for grieved lately, or ever? How many life circumstances have you been impacted by simultaneously? What did you discover as you searched for answers and deeper meaning regarding why it happened and how you would move on from it? Was there a plan you could have put in place in advance to help yourself deal more effectively afterwards or reduce the damage sustained by the impact of it? And do you notice how the processing of your emotions changes when you are suddenly faced with a careless word, insensitive thought or dismissive action that slams hard against your already wounded conscience?

We hold ourselves in a prison of our own making by silencing the internal dialogue of negative emotions and grief mainly because we want to avoid what might happen if others get involved. This tendency we have often results in us wearing a mask—hiding, suppressing, and disguising our genuine feelings instead of dealing openly and honestly with them. Some from my generation call it “faking it till you make it” with the understanding that when you know or can go back to do the work to shore up the underlying deficit (or in this case the negative emotion), you aim to get it together and show up authentically later. But what happens when you simply resign yourself to permanent suppression, or “pie-in-the-sky” thinking and later never comes around?

Our negative emotions are the flashing red light warning signals of our minds; when they appear on the scene, it’s time to stop and investigate what need hasn’t been met. Psychology Today blogger Tchiki Davis has offered this concise explanation of the purpose of negative emotions: “Because negative emotions are tools we use to get important ``needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment.“ To consider the idea that our negative emotions might actually serve a positive purpose is entirely hopeful. But how do we link the underlying pain of them with an improved sensibility? And what does any of this have to do with toxic positivity and working through unresolved trauma?

The cultural phenomenon of toxic positivity would have us continue to internalize and even ignore the raw gamut of emotions we experience rather than pour our hearts out in open and honest contrition to God. We need active and consistent training, support and guidance to deal directly with our negative emotions – for only then do we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking that will help us to stop regarding harmful feelings as facts, suppressing or hiding them and running the risk of spiritual burnout and damage to our overall mental and physical health.

Where then do we start? With our eternal life coach – the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ leading us all the way. Fueled by His grace, we can run the exercise drill of total trust and complete surrender on repeat --- casting all our cares upon Christ (Matthew 11:28-30). When we accept Him as our Lord, we can meditate on His loving influence and power to help set us free from everything that troubles and perplexes our minds in this life. When we accept Him as our Savior, we can freely receive His loving sacrifice and redemptive power to absolve all the guilt, shame, and regret of our sin. God’s word provides the complete balanced approach we need in dealing openly and honestly with managing ALL of our emotions – both positive and negative -- through the lens of grace exemplified in His life. (Psalm 55:22; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; 2 Corinthians 4:8, 9; Psalm 46:1, 2; Psalm 138:7; Philippians 4:6, 7; Psalm 18:6; Isaiah 10:27; Psalm 68:19, 20; Proverbs 3:5,6; John 16:33)

“Jesus knew the wants of the soul…. He promises to relieve the burdened mind, to comfort the sorrowing, and to give hope to the despondent. Many of those who heard Jesus were mourners over disappointed hopes, many were nourishing a secret grief, many were seeking to satisfy their restless longing with the things of the world and the praise of men; but when all was gained, they found that they had toiled only to reach a broken cistern, from which they could not quench their thirst. “(MCP 70.2)

“In Christ we see what God is like. As children imitate their father, you, as God’s children, should be like Him. Walk in love and be willing to expend yourself for others as Christ has done for us…” (Ephesians 5:2)

We can reject the message of feigned hope that toxic positivity presents and accept the perfect life example of Jesus Christ as our plan to approach managing the emotional ups and downs of life. We can follow Christ’s example and be honest with ourselves and each other when we are experiencing negative emotions. “Stop lying to each other and speak truthfully, because we are all members of the same family. If you get upset, don’t focus on your feelings until you’re filled with hatred. And let go of your righteous anger before nightfall by resting in the Lord. Don’t give the devil a foothold or an opportunity to cause trouble.” (Ephesians 4:25-27 The Clear Word) We can be empowered by the fact that Jesus felt sorrow (Matthew 26:38), He felt love (John 11:5) He endured agony (Luke 22:15); He also grieved and cried (John 11:33-36; Luke 19:41-44) and even got angry (Mark 3:3-6; 11:15-17). He experienced every human emotion and suffered the most painful of them all for our sins (Isaiah 53:3-5). The example of His empathy and compassion towards us is a safe, clear and effective one. Let us endeavor to follow it.

"Christ's love is deep and earnest, flowing like an irrepressible stream to all who will accept it. There is no selfishness in His love. If this heaven-born love is an abiding principle in the heart, it will make itself known, not only to those we hold most dear in sacred relationship but to all with whom we come in contact. It will lead us to bestow little acts of attention, to make concessions, to perform deeds of kindness, to speak tender, true, encouraging words. It will lead us to sympathize with those whose hearts hunger for sympathy." --MS 17, 1899 (5BC 1140) (1MCP 208.3)

We all have painful roots embedded deep in the soil of our hearts and minds that need nurturing through the inevitable losses of life. Toxic positivity stands in direct opposition to honest exposure to the truth in the light of Christ’s love. He is waiting at the door of our hearts for permission to lay the ax of His love at the base of every diseased root polluting our hearts with fear, doubt, unforgiveness, anger and other mental maladies. The key is in your hand; will you let the Lord help you unlock the door and minister the healing balm of His love right where it is most needed? Will you cry, “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed”? ”Save me, and I will be saved. You are my hope, the One I will praise.” (Jeremiah 17:14)

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