More and more we’re seeing examples of “toxic positivity” in our workplaces. There can be heavy pressure to only display positive emotions for fear of being seen as emotionally weak or a “downer”.
The false notion that we should always appear positive might come from an encouraging place, but in practice it only produces emotional repression, shame, and often an increase in whatever negative emotion you’re struggling to keep under wraps in the first place. Ironically, when we lift the weight of others' expectations off our shoulders and become our authentic selves, we’re much more likely to enjoy a generally positive mental outlook on life.
All Emotions All Welcome
Not much is guaranteed in life, but one thing that’s certain is the inevitable highs and lows of losses, setbacks, triumphs and unexpected joyful surprises. A mentally healthy person will experience all this and feel the full range of human emotion in response.
Emotions are simply a way for the body and brain to process our environment and extrapolate meaning from it. They aren’t inherently “good” or “bad”. One helpful analogy is to think of emotions as colors. Life would be bland if you only had one sunny yellow color to paint it with. Layers of different colors add depth and meaning, and the same is true for emotions.
Balancing Positive and Negative Emotions
Most of us aim to be positive, happy people, but if we’re being honest with ourselves it’s neither possible nor healthy to maintain this cheery attitude 100% of the time.
Even though all emotions have utility, we clearly don’t want to become stuck in a cycle of negativity. What we want is to make room for sadness, anger and pain to be felt, examined, and expressed. The trick is to do this in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary harm to yourself or others, and doesn't skew your emotional experience too far into negativity.
It’s perfectly understandable to be angry at injustices for example, but unhelpful to take that anger out on your loved ones. It’s also normal to experience periods of sadness, but it becomes a problem if you can’t feel any other emotions.
If you have a healthy inner world, you’ll likely feel a range of emotions every single day, so it’s essential to develop the skills needed to process negative emotions. This is what will help you restore emotional equilibrium and avoid cycles of rumination or repression.
Strategies To Process Negative Emotions
Practice mindfulness so you can respond rather than react when strong emotions come up.
Journal or speak with a trusted confidant when necessary to understand why a particular emotion is present.
Address the root of your negative emotion with action when possible. For example, envy may show up if you feel inadequate. Taking action in the areas you feel a deficit can be a healthy way to utilize your envy.
Reframe your mindset to focus on the positive. Paying more attention to positive emotions can increase their occurrence and reduce cycles of negative thinking. Practicing gratitude is one of the best tools for this.
Learn acceptance. Often, if we let negative emotions be just as they are without any attempt to stifle them, they become much more transient.
There’s no perfect answer for how to process negative emotions since every person and circumstance is unique. It may take some time and effort, and perhaps even some help from a mental health professional, but it’s entirely possible to hone this skill.
Learning to alchemize your negative emotions into something meaningful can be one of the most rewarding human experiences. When you have the courage to go down this path, you can master the art of spinning your pain into gold.
How To Regulate Your Emotions Without Suppressing Them (University of California)
Inhibition of Negative Content—a Shared Process in Rumination and Reappraisal (Frontiers in Psychology)
6 Steps to Mindfully Deal With Difficult Emotions (The Gottman Institute)