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Culture Focus From the Editors

I am Sad, Frustrated, Irritated, Fed Up. And I Refuse to Feel Guilty for it.

Pavlina Cerna May 1, 2020

Illustration: Eva Dinino

Don’t worry, it will get better. 

With so much time on your hands, you should do all the things you never could fit into your schedule. 

You should exercise. 

Be grateful you are not sick.

Pick up a new hobby. Learn a new language. Improve your skills. Take online courses.

Now in the fifth week of a lockdown, I cannot possibly count how many times I have read these lines and well meant advice or heard them from people around me as a response to my confession that I had been feeling sad, frustrated or angry over how my last few weeks at Temple turned out.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with doing any of the proposed activities—finding something to do in surreal times is important and healthy for our brains, giving it a break from the neverending, saddening thread of COVID-19 news. 

But it stops being good advice the moment it is the only answer to any hint of negative emotions.

This issue is not reserved for the United States, but America is a culture I had recognized often suppresses negativity long before I first set foot on American soil.

Back in the Czech Republic, my first English class in ninth grade started with learning the phrase, “Hello, how are you?”

“The answer to that is, ‘I’m good, how are you,’” my professor explained. “Even if your cat died that morning, you just answer you are fine and continue on.”

It was such a strange concept to me: why would I say I am OK, if I am not?

I moved to the U.S. a few years after that, getting to understand that this greeting exchange is just the beginning of endless pseudo-positivity.

In psychology, toxic positivity is described as a concept of staying positive as a way of living your life, focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that could potentially trigger negative emotional response. 

It sounds like a beautiful utopia, yet it’s actually toxic. 

Humans were given a whole emotional spectrum and the ability to feel both the negative and positive polarities, which are equally valid, yet only some are socially accepted while others are not.

Our feelings are not under our conscious control, we have no power over them. The best thing we can do is to validate them, call them by their names and tend to them—that way we get them out of the system, lower our internal pressure and make space for positive emotions to come back. But such a process assumes we have the tools and ability to recognize them in the first place, something American culture often teaches people not to do.

Where I come from, people are much more straightforward. Growing up, if I had a bad day, I was upset or felt sad, you could see it on my face, before I had verbalized it to you.

Living in the U.S. now, not only did people not know how to respond to my outpouring of emotions, but they have asked me to work on thinking more positively.

So I learned to keep my feelings to myself, smile through sadness, distract myself by external influences and avoid acknowledging how I truly feel.

In the past five weeks, more than ever before, I have seen posts not only encouraging, but forcing and shaming people into more exercising and less eating, learning a new language and coming out of this pandemic as new self-realized superhumans.

I, too, started signing up for various online courses, watching educational talks and trying to “make the most” out of my days indoors—just to feel guilty for the extra time I slept in in the morning or spent watching random videos of adorable puppies learning to walk down the stairs when there were no results I could refer to at the end of the day. Most importantly, I felt invisible pressure rather than genuine appetency to do it.

I realized I jumped on the positivity wagon, trying to pretend that the world outside is just fine and I am doing just fine and everything is fine.

Well, I am not. At least not all the time.

I was supposed to have my graduation next week, first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, My parents were scheduled to fly over from the Czech Republic to watch me walk across the stage to get my diploma.

“You better throw your hat, I wanna see that,” my dad told me the last time I saw him six months ago, smiling and as excited as I was.

Instead, I will be graduating while sitting in my off-campus room, which gradually has started to feel less like my beloved sanctuary and more like a prison. I will lose my only source of income the day before graduation, without any prospect of a job offer or plans for what to do. I have no idea when I will be able to see my family.

So let’s be honest here for change: although I fully understand while the current lockdown and other precautions are necessary, it sucks! I am sad, frustrated, irritated, fed up. And I refuse to feel guilty for it.

There is an undeniable power in positivity and drowning in negative emotions all the time is equally unhealthy. In no way I am trying to discourage anyone from taking advantage of all the great things the internet and our modern world provide us with. By all means, please do! 

But if you are not very cheerful today and are not overwhelmingly productive while feeling the uncomfortable emotions bubbling up, let them. Acknowledge them. Write about them. Talk to someone who validates them and doesn’t disregard them.

Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel. This is a pandemic for god’s sake. There is nothing wrong with feeling down once in a while—on the contrary.

It’s OK.