I bet the majority of your convos lately with your partner, friends, or coworkers have zeroed in on the negative (stressful politics…how sick of video meetings you are…people who wear their face mask under their nose…). You probably have some friends that go straight to talking smack about everything. On the opposite hand, others might default to toxic positivity when times are rough, throwing out lines like, "Everything's going to be okay! Look on the bright side!"
The thing is, both ends of the spectrum are danger zones. Venting around the clock is no good because, as you unload, you revisit negative experiences, putting yourself in a stressed-out, cortisol-flooded state. Enter bummer mode regularly and a physiological shift happens: You rewire your brain to continue that behavior, where you endlessly think from a pessimistic mindset—causing yet more issues that can impact everything from productivity to sleep.
As for toxic positivity, forcing yourself to stay sunny during trying times can also have emotional repercussions. And this habit is especially popular right now given the fact that 2020 has been rough, to put it lightly.
Wait, what is toxic positivity again?
Toxic positivity is a phrase that's used to describe the behavior of maintaining optimism, hope, and good vibes, despite being in a negative or stressful situation. (Think: "Just focus on all the good things in your life!" "But there's so much to be grateful for!")
The issue with only allowing happy thoughts in is that you end up suppressing negative emotions, like fear, concern, worry, sadness, anxiety. And guess what? Those are *real* emotions tied to your authentic experiences. Bottling those emotions up does not make them go away—and you're merely delaying having to face your truth. (Cue a meltdown later on.)
Not to mention, it can be pretty difficult to be around someone who is non-stop positive—in other words, who isn't a realist. It can even harm your friendships if you do not allow others to express anything but positivity, as opposed to sharing their truth with you.
So, how do you strike a balance between constant complaining and toxic positivity?
Yep, balance is the keyword here. Your goal should be to allow yourself to complain when necessary, without it being overkill, and also express positivity in a productive way when it really counts. Let me show you three simple strategies for how to strategically whip out the rose-colored glasses.
1. Attach an Action
Need to vent? With my clients and loved ones, I nudge them to vocalize an idea for how they can improve what they’re frustrated about; I call it being the change agent. This helps you think critically about the scenario and understand your role in perpetuating it. So let it out (“I’m sick of that influencer posting her glam quarantine life!” “Mondays are the worst!”).
Then ask yourself, What’s my next step? It might be as simple as muting someone on social. There’s always something you can do, even if the action might make you a little uncomfortable or requires effort (say, forcing yourself out of bed for an a.m. sweat to start your week off happier).
2. Start and End on the Good
If you’re hungry for optimism, order the positivity sandwich. It’s simple: Begin and end every conversation with one uplifting thing. So the positivity part is like the two slices of bread, and all the grumbling and griping gets stuffed in the middle. The point is to practice gratitude without silencing the lows. Playing Pollyanna suppresses your real emotions, which can backfire and make you feel worse later—so that’s not the goal.
Incorporate this new habit whether you’re reflecting on your day solo or “whining and (outdoor-)dining” with friends. The enthusiasm becomes contagious when you get your loved ones on board, trust me.
3. Voice Your Needs
Cracks develop in relationships when you constantly vent to others with no end goal (cue the “I don’t know what else you want me to say” comment from a salty friend). First, survey the scene by asking if they’re okay hearing you out, since they might have their own stuff to worry about. Second, be specific in your ask when you’re complaining.
You can say, “Hey, I just need to vent, is that okay?” or, “So this happened, and I could use your feedback.” That way, you acknowledge to the listener that you’re letting it all out (self-awareness is key!), and you’ve made it crystal clear whether you need advice (to inform that action you’re going to take, remember?) or simply an open ear this time.
This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Women’s Health. Become a WH Stronger member now.
Kiaundra Jackson is a licensed marriage and family therapist, award-winning speaker, best-selling author, and TV personality who focuses on healthy relationships and mental health.