Updated: Mar 17, 2022
In brain retraining, we quickly learn not to dwell on "negative" thoughts, to identify unwanted emotions and often, our learned response is to retrain our way away from any and all it-triggering things as fast as possible; we change our language, we talk limby off her ledge, and we DOSE like there's no tomorrow. As brain retrainers, we all understand the elements of this approach and how it helps - the negative chemicals will keep us from healing, can spike "its" (symptoms) and potentially lead to a downward spiral - however in my work with retrainers over the years, I've noticed that things - like normal human emotions - are being left out. Some retrainers are setting up a see-saw mentality, where there's an up and a down, but there's no allowance for the in-between.
As humans, we also understand that things happen - pets and family members pass, things within our work, our families, or finances change - and rather than being with this, I've noticed the tendency within retrainers (because of what they've been taught, or the way they've interpreted their retraining program) to avoid feeling the feelings they have associated with these things and to avoid talking and thinking about these things, bottling their emotions in, and outwardly appearing and being as happy, optimistic and positive as possible.
What's toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset, attitude and vibe.
With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Happiness and positivity are compulsively pushed, while genuine human emotional experiences are invalidated, denied or minimized.
According to psychotherapist Carolyn Karoll, "[Toxic positivity] can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.
“Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive.
“They distract us from the problem at hand, and [they] don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health.”
It can show up in (internal and external) conversations, where things like "it could be worse",
"some people would kill to have what you have" and "you should be grateful" or "think yourself lucky" are thrown around. It can be in the posts of those on social media who are always sharing their most productive, joyful and fun moments (let's be real, that's a lot of us - we tend not to share our shittiest moments, our challenges or struggles).
I, for one, was certainly in the "positivity-only" camp on social media more than ever when I started brain retraining, and struggled with that, as I have always been about sharing what's true and especially things that are all too often swept under the rug and not publicly discussed. At the same time, sharing at length about things that triggered me (and then having notifications pop up about them, constantly drawing me back to thinking about them and being retriggered) was not going to help me.
I believe there's a balance in our healing.
So, how can we retrain without "toxic positivity"?
In my experience and opinion, our best course of action is:
1. Allowing and acknowledging what's there emotionally
This could very well be the single piece of advice I shared before signing off from the blog, as it is the most important thing - feeling and acknowledging it all and allowing it to flow.
PLEASE NOTE: "Allowing" doesn't mean inviting it to stay, dwelling in it or welcoming it to be your entire life. Allowing is the opposite of resisting - and if there's something there, there's no point denying or resisting it. Acknowledging it could be taking a moment to feel it, it could be naming it or verbally noting its presence. Of course in many retraining programs, this is familiar to us - it's the part where we feel the symptom or "it", and acknowledge it - perhaps calling it out aloud "Hey Limby" before we continue the process and shift it.
The thing is, not every negative thought and emotion are caused by limbic impairment, and therefore, don't need to be "brain-retrained" away in the ways that your program has taught. We are human, and all emotions are part of a normal and healthy human experience.
2. Allowing (and/or inviting) unwanted emotion to move
This could be done in any number of ways, and sometimes, all we need to do is allow - our brain and body will release the emotion on their own. As time goes on, our emotions and thoughts naturally change - second to second, minute to minute, day to day. As brain retrainers, our systems have experienced dysregulation and can "over-react" to things, so we can tend to distrust our bodies and brains. We must, at some point, begin to re trust them to do what they're designed to do. You need to be the judge of where your system is at. If you are feeling extremely "limbic", DOSEing and processing in a structured way isn't a bad thing. There's no wrong or right, good or bad, just what feels true for you.
What might processing it, or "inviting it to move" look like? It could look like crying it out, it could look like punching a pillow, it could look less emotionally-heightened, like closing your eyes and noticing what is happening in your body, and shifting it with your breath, movement or laughter. It could look like writing it all out, letting your fears, darkness, anger etc to pour out onto the page, and then burning the paper, allowing the feelings to disintegrate into ashes.
I am a big believer in emotion needing to move. Some say "E-motion is 'Energy in motion'", and that resonates with me - it doesn't feel like emotions should be held, kept or bottled within us. It seems they should flow like energy - changing, ebbing and moving all the time like waves, tides, seasons - they're natural, they never stop, and they are always a little bit different in every moment. Some moments seem subtle, others may seem intense, but they transition and change, one rolling into another.
There is medical and scientific proof, of course, that bottling emotions can cause real physical damage in our bodies too - I once even met a lady who ruptured her stomach by holding in anger and resentment - this isn't just me preaching some woo-woo feeling I get about energy and emotion.
3. Processing solo if need be
Allowing ourselves to heal in the most productive way (especially as we start our retraining) may mean avoiding conversations and posts and shares about what's going on - at least for a while. If you need to write or talk or yell, try doing it alone. If it feels isolating, try chatting with those you live with or know.
4. Shifting energy, not spiralling with it
This is about allowing (and then perhaps shifting) energy, but not taking a downward spiral. If processing emotions seems to be too much on your own, you may need to seek out a coach or therapist to help you. It can be helpful to find someone who is familiar with positive language and/or brain retraining so that you can share all of your experience and what you are going through, but be guided by someone who has a similar framework to the one you are already working with
5. Tapping into positivity without it being your "all"
There's nothing wrong with good vibes, with doing things the fun way (yes, even shifting out of funks, ebbs, dips and unwanted emotions), or with having a sunny perspective, as long as you are real with the other emotions that may pass through. If, as an example, you set up your Instagram to follow only positive accounts, notice if you feel inadequate or broken or "bad" if you're not being or feeling super positive. Maybe you feel fine, and after your initial healing, stretching your online world to accommodate other influences may still be a healthy thing to do. Follow your cousin - who you love, but isn't all rainbows and butterflies, add an old school mate, or follow a death-metal band you loved but stopped following when you started healing. At first in our healing, it is best practice to protect ourselves and create safety, curating a happy and supportive environment. In time, as we heal, our nervous systems are able to deal with other influences, and you, my friend, get to decide on which influences you let in, and which you say bye to as you enjoy the richness and fullness of life's entire spectrum.
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