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  • Writer's pictureWellFit by Jennie

Genuine Gratitude vs Toxic Positivity

Updated: Feb 29

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The holiday season is right around the corner, starting with Thanksgiving and generally running through the New Year. You need to look no further than your local grocery store to see our cultural dictate that this season is “supposed” to be happy, merry, and bright. One needs only to explore the myths around the first Thanksgiving feast being a peaceful gathering setting off a mutually beneficial relationship between the Native Americans and the pilgrims to see the historical inaccuracies involved.

For many, this season may bring about mixed emotions associated with loss. This issue has been personal for me. My husband and I lost our first son, Jacob, to stillbirth right before Thanksgiving in 2004. We were fortunate to have received ample love & support from our family & friends. We also attended a holiday candle lighting ceremony hosted by Compassionate Friends, an organization who provides support to grieving parents.

Right after Thanksgiving in 2005, I was hospitalized on strict bed rest for the last 5 weeks of my pregnancy with our son Michael. I had a complete placenta previa, which can be life-threatening for mother and baby. Right after Christmas, Michael was born via emergency c-section 2 months early. He lived in the NICU for the next 4 weeks before coming home. (He is a healthy 16-year-old now!)

My mom died over the summer and my family will be facing our first holiday season without her.

Sometimes the holidays are hard for me for these and other reasons, and I know I’m not alone.

Perhaps some folks do have the privilege of celebrating the season with wholehearted joy. I think this is available to most of us. We must first acknowledge, however, some hidden influences in order to approach this season in a balanced way, which then increases our true capacity for the emotions we associate with celebration.

There are a few situations that I believe deserve greater awareness so that we may talk openly about them.

You have had a loss or trauma during the year. Many people will be facing their first holiday season without a loved one or beloved pet who may have passed during the year. For some, each holiday season may bring about sadness reflecting upon a person who is dearly missed year after year. The loss may be symbolic, such as a child moving out of the home to attend college, a divorce, a job change, retirement, a move, or a health problem. Others may have lost their home in a fire or hurricane.

You experienced a loss or trauma during the holiday season itself. One person may have lost a loved one or beloved pet during the holiday season in a previous year. Another may have been the victim of a crime such as a bitcoin scam, robbery, or assault during a holiday season. The anniversary dates of such events can become consciously or unconsciously associated with the holidays.

You are struggling with a full-blown mental health issue, mild depression or anxiety, or are just noticing a lot of “negative” emotions, e.g. sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy, or betrayal. Since these “darker” emotions are not deemed socially acceptable and fitting with the “holiday spirit”, many people end up suppressing or repressing them.

You feel pressure from your family or community to be happy and grateful while simultaneously spending time, money, and energy that you don’t have. We live in a consumerist culture, and it is hard to resist the influence to buy into it. During the holidays, we may feel obliged to buy, decorate, cook, send out holiday greetings, and attend or host social gatherings when we may lack adequate reserves to do so. Such endeavors can lead to a financial or energetic hangover in January, especially for introverts or highly sensitive people.

Before you dismiss me as a pessimistic Grinch, let’s consider how emotions work. Humans have an entire range of emotions from gratitude to resentment, love to hate, from bliss to rage. We all have these. The positive emotions feel great when they are genuine.

While negative emotions might not feel so great, they might hold a message for us. They just need to be felt and then released. The denial and pushing away of negative emotions can be referred to as toxic positivity.

Emotions are merely energy, passing through. When we cease to be authentically connected to ourselves during our distress, we only prolong the disavowed emotional state. Paradoxically, it is when we deny or resist these emotions that they grow larger & more insistent, and even manifest in the form of health problems.

If you are experiencing challenging life circumstances, emotions, or mental health issues, you are not alone! Rather than pushing it all away and pretending nothing is wrong, acknowledge where you truly are.

Everyone is different, but some ways of managing difficulties specific to this season, one or more of the following may be helpful:

- Write in a journal. If you are worried about this being read, know that you can shred, delete, or burn your journal entries.

- Reach out to a trusted friend or family member who will not shame you for what you are feeling. Talk things through with them.

- Find a good in-person or virtual therapist, coach, or support group.

- Honor yourself by letting yourself cry or forgive yourself for feeling numb. There are different stages of grief and ways in which we grieve.

- Decide what the holidays mean to you and proceed in that spirit.

- Decide in advance how much money, time, and energy you can realistically commit to this season, and stick with it!

- Honor a deceased loved one or pet in some way, visiting the gravesite, lighting a candle, or just holding that individual in your heart. Share memories with others who knew them.

- Pray or meditate.

- Acknowledge little things for which you can be grateful e.g., a warm bed, food on the table.

- Take comfort in ordinary daily routines like folding the laundry or preparing a meal.

- Give yourself plenty of time and space; or engage in activities that provide you structure and comfort.

- Limit your exposure to social media unless you truly gain support through it.

- Be very, very kind to yourself.

If someone in your circle is struggling, you can:

- Let them know you are there for them, thinking of and/or praying for them.

- Offer compassionate support for wherever they are. Trying to cheer someone up without respecting their feelings or telling them outright to “stay positive” is toxic positivity. When negative emotions are made unacceptable, this will only result in driving them underground.

- Just be present. Your presence is more important than trying to figure out the exact right thing to say.

- Provide practical help if you can: take a meal to them or help in other tangible ways as your time and resources own allow.

- Give the person space while also them know you will be checking in with them regularly.

- Allow the person to talk about what is going on if/when they are ready to do so.

It is important to know that 2 states can be held at the same time. For instance, someone can feel very sad and angry towards a deceased loved one while also feeling love & gratitude for what that person brought into their life. The presence of negative emotions does not mean we loved a deceased person any less. In the case of a symbolic loss, we can grieve an old identity and still be curious about & appreciative of aspects of the new stage in which we find ourselves.

We can uncover genuine “positive” states such as love, gratitude, and joy at our core if we are willing to allow the darker, more painful states to rise and release for healing. And that is something for which we can be thankful!

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1 Comment

Tracy Federman
Tracy Federman
Nov 01, 2022

Really good points and a welcome reminder that everyone is going through something and seldom do we know the extent of the pain. Sensitivity is key. I’m so sorry about the death of your firstborn, Jennie. I can’t imagine. Thank you for sharing. A perfect example of how the holidays can magnify tender memories,

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