Therapy and therapists bring their own set of privileges and biases with them when they enter the therapy room if they do not mindfully address them. I’d like to begin by naming and acknowledging that my own set of privileges as a therapist who is cis- gendered, heterosexual and belonging to the Savarna Caste could very different from my readers’ experiences. While, I acknowledge that I am privileged, having to grow up in an Indian family didn’t permit me to exit toxic comments and gestures.
Raise your hands up high if any of these phrases sound familiar:
“Jo hota hai acche ke liye hota hai!” (everything happens for the best)
“You know it could be worse”
“Be grateful for what you still have”
Growing up, having to sit with these statements made me feel like I was too weak for experiencing pain, especially emotional pain. I believed that any emotional distress was my own fault and that I had to try harder to be happy and cheerful to make others around me happy.
Early on I was told to never allow space for uncomfortable feelings or “negative emotions”. You are often made to feel guilty for being upset, sad, angry or expressing any emotion that makes you feel vulnerable around family. You are expected to “manage” your emotions better! I lived 22 years of my life by this principle and it took intensive therapy for me to recognise that my emotions, both comfortable and uncomfortable ones, are equally important and valid. The so-called positive statements to “cheer” one up can be extremely insincere, in-genuine and delegitimising.
Toxic positivity is the assumption that one must always be happy and have an optimistic outlook towards life, whereas experiencing and processing any pain or distress is defective and bad. One of the reasons why toxic positivity is still prevalent is because of lack of resources and agency to hold space for emotions like jealousy, anger, sadness, loneliness and so on, that may not be considered culturally healthy.
While I experience toxicity at home and also witness my clients experience something similar, here are some effective ways to cope with toxic positivity:
Naming my emotions
This helped me feel like my experience was real and legitimate. To give an example: while I am constantly at the receiving end of body shaming comments which may get dismissed as “casual chat/concern” in my family, naming it to myself as hurtful allowed me to recognize my boundaries and set them too, to protect myself.
This boundary may look like telling your Pammi aunty: “Hey, I am not okay with you talking about my body/ skin like that. It sounds very mean.”
Listening and validating your family members’ point and choosing to offer disagreement
Often I notice that it is considered rude and disrespectful to set clear boundaries in families. Remember managing toxicity at home and boundary setting need not always be confrontational. It is okay to offer a diplomatic stance to protect yourself. Relationships and emotions cannot be seen as binaries but as dynamic experiences.
Validating uncomfortable emotions
This can be very empowering and humanistic. We love our families! But sometimes coming in contact with certain behaviours and responses can be very toxic and hurtful to us. In such situations it can be very self-soothing to validate any emotion that may cause discomfort. When that uncle of yours passes an extremely misogynistic comment like“ Ladies of a happy family belong in the kitchen” feel free to validate yourself that it is hurtful, mean and disrespectful of him to be insensitive to you.
Contradictory feelings can coexist.
There are times when certain behaviours of our loved ones can be very painful to sit with. Sometimes a parent’s “concern” may be manifested as a very derogatory comment at us. Allowing oneself to name that part of their behaviour as toxic and incorrect can reduce the guilt of naming it. Just disapproving of certain parts in no way means you dislike or hate the other person, especially family.
There could be more creative ways of coping and to allow reaffirming statements, directed at yourself. Remember that you are allowed to have million experiences and it need not have evidence to be proved to the world around you.