Positivity is what we’re all aiming for, isn’t it? Everyone strives to be decked out in the stylish Mackintosh of a mindset that protects you when you get caught in the emotional equivalent of rain – and drenched by the splash of a passing car – always to emerge smiling, albeit three shades damper and a whole lot less dapper than you were before. If you’re doing life correctly, you may be telling yourself, then your inner reserves of positivity should, by rights, be such an indomitable force that they carry you through the big stuff as well as the small. Divorce? “Keep smiling!” Job loss? “Everything happens for a reason!” Low self esteem, anxiety, depression? “Can’t help you there, sweetheart, this shared headspace is ‘positive vibes only’!”
If something about this onslaught of injunctions to “look on the bright side” feels a little bit off to you, you are not alone. Something is indeed rotten in the mindstate of on-trend default delightedness. The reality is that not all positivity is positive: there is such a thing as positivity-gone-bad, or as US psychologist Dr. Whitney Hawkins Goodman terms it, “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity is the willful ignoring and invalidating negative emotions, in the hope that, by denying them a platform, they – and the problems they pertain to – will vanish.
Mantra-based meditation can help you develop the wherewithal to recognise toxic positivity in yourself and others, and give you the tools to tackle it head on. With a clearer head, you can learn to lean into the negative emotions that it tries to mask, rather than fearing them. On our courses and classes in London, you will also discern the tools to expand the compassion that you direct towards yourself and others. This can protect against the initial development of negative feelings, and is also instrumental to learning to deconstruct them when they do arise.
What makes ‘toxic positivity’ so toxic?
The ready availability of items billed as opportunities to make ourselves happy has given rise to the pervasive idea that we can, on some level, “choose happiness,” by the paths we take and the purchases we make. This messaging is so powerful that, if you are already diligently submerged in products billed as the ultimate innovations in “self-care,” and you still feel unhappy, you are highly likely to blame yourself, and to be reluctant to admit it.
Phrases like “stop being so negative!”, “just be happy!” and, worst of all, “good vibes only!” may appear to be helpfully banishing the blues, but in fact they all too often have the opposite effect. Whether we find ourselves applying toxic positivity to our own thoughts or dismissing those of others, its root cause is the same. Schooled to believe that negativity, no matter what it stems from, is somehow shameful, we are keen – both outwardly and inwardly – to curate the impression that we approach life with a smile every minute of the day.
This impossible task inevitably involves lying to ourselves and others, as we strive to shut down any feelings that would add shadows to our perma-smiling persona, becoming an exhausted participant in a perpetual game of emotional whack-a-mole. Dealing with emotions in this way is problematic because, when less-than-sunny feelings are invalidated – rather than acknowledged and given the space to unfold – they brew within us. Toxic positivity can become a many-headed monster in terms of its effects on the psyche. Refusing to let it rain once in a while is a surefire route to harbouring an emotional thunderstorm that – no matter how firmly you hang on to your party hat – will manifest somehow later on.
In the meantime, the tension between our inner emotions, and the emotions we wish we were feeling and are attempting to project, creates a powerful internal conflict. This often goes hand in hand with “coping strategies” that take us even further away from an honest engagement with how we truly feel – for instance, staying at the pub when every “cheers!” feels more hollow than the last, until the bell tolls for final orders.
Diffuse your internal conflict
The more frenziedly you tell yourself that you’ve “never been happier” and “everything is wonderful,” the more keenly the negativity bottled up inside you will search for an escape route. At the heart of this dynamic lies a determination to self-edit, pushing particular thoughts and feelings away. This tactic is based on the hope that this will result in their eventual, if not immediate, disappearance. Unfortunately, it amounts to displacing, rather than processing, the difficult emotions, which can result in the development or worsening of anxiety.
Mantra-based meditation is a powerful antidote to internal conflict, in part because it makes you less prone to “black and white thinking.” Each feeling or thought that comes to you is then less likely to be instantaneously categorised as “good” or “bad,” which means you are more likely to let it develop in full and give it due consideration, rather than pushing it away. The more open you are to feeling your feelings, the better you will become at working with them rather than against them, meaning that the potential for toxicity to accrue diminishes.
When you’re trying not to seem – let alone be – too negative, you’re operating from a place of inauthenticity on a deep level. This can add yet another unwelcome nuance to the inner conflict that toxic positivity causes, as you inwardly critique everything that comes out of your mouth, doing your best to ensure that a slip of the tongue doesn’t accidentally connote the negative mindset that you certainly aren’t experiencing.
Mantra meditation can give you a space in which to feel – and tame – your feelings, breaking this cycle. When you’re freed from censorship of your inner state, you will also become liberated from the task of policing your verbal output. Without simultaneously feeling an additional sense of shame about your negative emotions when they crop up, your low self-esteem will improve and you will become comfortable vocalising your woes or worries, rather than caught up in a soul-destroying struggle to mask them.
One result of verbalising your true thoughts to yourself and others is that you can begin a practical approach to any problems you may be experiencing. Acknowledging a problem is a necessary prelude to solving it. If “toxic positivity” was an Instagram filter, it would be a blurry, rose-tinted one that renders reality unrecognisable. Mantra-meditation can give you the clarity to notice the presence of this filter and switch it off.
Repair your relationships with others
Relating to others in a healthy way requires a general attitude of acceptance. One of the most insidious aspects of toxic positivity is that it can seep into the psyche of a collective. Without anyone directly verbalising it, a smiles-all-round stance can develop. Everyone tacitly understands that this must be upheld at all costs, no matter how painful the internal perambulations are for each individual keeping the Good Ship Positivity afloat.
Mantra-based meditation is often a life-long journey, rather than a rapid route to inner peace. Even on an early stage of this process, however, you will find that your ability to engage fully with your own emotional landscape increases. This will leave you better able to navigate shared headspaces and group mindsets in a way which brings real positivity to the situation, rather than perpetuating a toxic positivity culture.
Crucially, your capacity for empathy will develop with meditation. The celebrated researcher of shame, vulnerability and empathy Dr. Brené Brown describes how empathy lends us increased flexibility in terms of putting ourselves in others’ shoes, validating one another’s emotions in a way which facilitates real connection. “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one,” explains Brown. Unless we make that choice to empathise – which involves acknowledging negative emotions in others and finding a point of reference within ourselves – it is all too easy to slip into the stock phrases of toxic positivity like “cheer up!” or “you’ll get over it!” which minimise suffering and alienate, rather than comfort.
Expand your capacity for self-compassion
We are part of a culture which is obsessed with unlocking the secrets of happiness. This can leave you feeling like you’re doing something wrong if your day-to-day routine isn’t transporting you to Ibiza-style levels of euphoria. Toxic positivity sits directly at odds with our increased cultural recognition of the importance of looking after our mental health.
Although depression, for example, is surprisingly common – with more than 300 million people affected worldwide according to the World Health Organization – many people feel uncomfortable talking about their mental health, let alone accessing initiatives to help improve it. A culture of toxic positivity directly contributes to mental health conditions functioning as invisible wounds. Unaddressed, they benefit from no healing agents and consequently fester, causing increasingly deep-rooted problems.
Your mantra will function as the password to a widened horizon, where you can contextualise your thoughts and feelings within the expansive and undulating cosmos that makes up your psyche as a whole. Whether you feel blue on the odd occasion or more regularly, regular meditation practice will deepen your understanding of the mechanics of your mind. This is a vital first step to processing your thoughts rather than plastering over them, opening up a window of opportunity to treat yourself with the compassion you deserve.
If you would like to find out more about how Beeja meditation could help you access your most authentic self, you can visit us in London, or book a course.