‘It is what it is’ and other ways we dismiss ourselves
This post, written by Kristina Lesnjak our International Student Project Officer, discusses 'toxic positivity' and emotional expression.
This includes mentions of anxiety, low mood and depression. Please be conscious of your own wellbeing before reading and seek help if needed.
We’ve all been there. Something happened and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. Maybe the outcome was worse than we expected. Maybe we didn’t get the mark we wanted on an essay we worked really hard for. Maybe we failed altogether. Maybe our partner has said something to upset us. Or maybe we broke up with them. We feel sad, disappointed, angry, upset or whatever unpleasant emotion might arise. Then, our family member/friend/partner swoops in with their well-intended phrases, such as ‘It could be worse’, ‘Stay positive’, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and other attempts of providing solace and comfort.
At first glance, nothing seems to be wrong with saying those things. After all, the people saying them mean well. But, have you ever thought about how it made you feel hearing them? Did it improve your situation? Did it make you feel better? If it did, great. But if not, keep reading.
Toxic positivity aka denying our true feelings
These phrases are known today as being part of ‘toxic positivity’. It is defined as ‘the over-generalisation of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimisation and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.’ In other words, trying too hard to look at the bright side when we’re not feeling so ‘bright’/happy only results in more unpleasant emotions, even if we suppress them deep within us. Of course, we should all look to being resilient and bounce back when we’re not feeling our best. However, too much positivity can also cover up or silence our emotional human experience.
Some other signs of toxic positivity include:
Hiding/masking your true feelings
Trying to ‘just get on with it’ by dismissing an emotion
Feeling guilty for what you feel
Shaming others/silently judging them for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
Brushing things off that are bothering you by saying ‘it is what it is’
So why is this a problem? Shouldn’t we just 'get over it’ so that we can resume our lives? Well, kind of. But I think the best (and probably only) way to do so is by processing our emotions instead of trying to 'get over’ them, which is not the same thing.
Cultural differences on emotions
From a societal aspect, not every culture appreciates or encourages the open expression of unpleasant emotions. Interestingly, we learn to have emotions in a cultural way, rather than the emotion existing on its own and then us actually feeling it. So, it is important to note that every culture has its own way of looking at emotions, thereby valuing and processing them differently which has direct consequences on people’s behaviour and relationships they form with others. By becoming aware of this phenomenon, we can step out of our own worldview and realise it is not universal.
This is why some people might not reach out for help while others do so with ease. This is why some people bury their emotions deep within them rather than expressing how they really feel. This is why some people have no clue on how to identify their emotions, let alone talk about them.
Forcing a positive outlook on life no matter what only contributes to the stunting of our emotional and personal growth, it invalidates our experience as human beings, it can cause anxiety and depression and it can even make us physically sick! Furthermore, it makes it difficult to form genuine bonds with other people. Imagine having a friend with whom you cannot be your true self around. That is a truly heavy burden to bear if you’re already feeling down.
What you can do
Since I’m not a mental health professional and this blog post is a mix of research and my personal experience, I shall leave you with some tips from actual experts on mental health.
1. Accept difficult emotions
Easier said than done, I know. Accepting anything, though, is the first step. Accepting how you feel helps with coping and decreasing the intensity of whatever you might be feeling. Aim for a balance between pleasant and unpleasant emotions, rather than accepting an ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude.
2. Talk it out
Not everyone is good at talking things out or knows how to do it. Or maybe has no one to talk to. But there is a solution to this too. If you have been taught to or are used to ‘sweep’ your emotions ‘under the rug’, after accepting how you feel you might want to refer to this TedTalk playlist which is all about talking about your feelings. It is worth a listen and there are transcripts available in ~40+ languages!
If you feel like you have no one to talk to, your University & the NHS are here for you! You can book a counselling appointment or call a helpline or a Nightline (all information conveyed is confidential).
Your emotions are not as complicated or impossible to understand as you might think. These people have heard it all and they will make sense of what you are feeling too. It is their job, and they are very good at it!
3. Shift your perspective
While I was doing research for this topic, I came across a sentence along the lines of ‘we, as human beings, are flawed, so of course we’re going to feel negative emotions.’ I would disagree with two things here (and so do other experts):
There are no ‘negative’/’bad’ or ‘positive’/’good’ emotions. Emotions just ‘are’ and it is up to us to decide whether we are going to supress them or let them hang around for a bit until a different emotion takes its place.
Human beings are not ‘flawed’ for having emotions in the first place. I think having emotions is what makes us human, what connects us to each other, and what enriches our experience in the world. To say that we are ‘flawed’ implies that we should not be feeling what we feel, therefore invalidating our genuine human experience.
We can also look at emotions as guidance. If we are feeling sad about an unwanted outcome, it means that what happened was meaningful to us. If we feel anxious about presenting in front of a group, it means we care about how we are being perceived. Emotions can convey important information to the people around us. If we are feeling sad, it means we need comfort. If we feel guilty, it means we are looking for forgiveness, and so on.
Now, when something unpleasant happens to you, know that you have two choices: you can try your hardest to 'stay positive’ or you can accept and process your feelings. You build resilience and you build optimism by knowing that you can face your emotions, however unpleasant they might be, and still come out on the other side. We don’t have to deny our true feelings. There is no shame and there is no guilt in being our true selves. There is, however, the authentication of our human experience in this world. By truly processing our emotions, life becomes easier and better for ourselves and for the people around us. So next time, choose wisely.
Thanks to Kristina Lesnjak, International Student Project Officer who wrote this post. Kristina is currently studying for their masters in International Relations at the University of Nottingham having graduated with a BA (Hons) in French and International Relations from the University of Leicester. Kristina has a wealth of experience, having studied in the UK, France and Croatia (her home).
Working in Partnership
The project is nation-wide. We're making a real effort to engage with everyone interested in international student mental health, including universities, mental health services, students unions, sector bodies, charities and organisations such a private student accommodation.
The project is led by the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the University of Nottingham Students' Union, University of Leeds, Leeds University Union, SOAS, SOAS Students' Union, Student Minds and Campuslife Ltd.
Project funded as part of the Office for Students Mental Health Challenge Competition.