Pushing yourself: when it becomes toxic positivity

Pushing yourself: when it becomes toxic positivity

Written by Melanie, our guest blogger. Want to write a blog post for us? Email us at marketing@thecellartrust.org

We live in a society where pushing yourself hard is considered something to be celebrated. “Meet your limits head on and drive through them”, we’re told. That’s all we need to do to reach some empyrean form of ourselves defined by society. The thing we all supposedly want to attain.

This mentality is championed and anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it is seen as unmotivated, even apathetic. They obviously don’t want to really reach their goals if they’re not willing to just make a concerted effort, do they?

Limit-pushing can be helpful to people, in some situations; it’s important to understand that the idea isn’t toxic in itself. It only becomes a problem when it’s expected from everyone, all of the time. Imposing this idea onto people with mental illnesses, to whom limits are often the things keeping them stable and safe, can be dangerous.

Everyone’s plate is a different size. In fact, some people’s plates shrink and grow depending on how they’re feeling at the time. I definitely fall into the latter category, as I have Bipolar Affective Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Managing these two comorbid conditions really requires me to be constantly mindful of how much of my plate is free for tasks outside of coping with my disorders.

It takes a lot of energy to challenge the behemoths of depression, hypomania, psychosis, anxiety, and all of the other things I experience. That isn’t just mental and emotional energy, but physical too; it’s tiring. To be well, I have to make sure I take time for myself and keep a good schedule of rest, sleep, relaxation time, healthy eating.

To outsiders looking in, if I choose to go home early from an event, I might seem like a killjoy. If I decide to skip a party, I’m being anti-social. Turning down a project might seem like I’m not dedicated. What’s really happening, however, is me being protective of my boundaries. I’m always thinking about exactly just how big my plate is and how full it can be at any given time. I also have structures in my days I need to be respectful of; I have alarms to take my medication at certain times, I have other alarms to remind me to stop eating to ensure I’ve 2 hours clear before taking them. This is all part of my day that’s necessary.

As positive as it can be sometimes to push yourself that little bit more, it’s not necessary if you feel like it will be detrimental to your wellbeing.

Does this mean we as sufferers should never give ourselves a little push from time to time? Of course not. The important point is: I’m the expert in knowing what works for me, when it’s okay to push, and when to forgive myself an evening on the sofa watching cartoons and taking a nap.

I’m only my own expert through lots of trial and error. Sometimes I’ve taken myself somewhere, only to realise when I got there that I’d made a mistake. I’ll feel drained of energy, I won’t be at my best and because of that I’ll feel worse than I did in the first place. If I continue to push myself and don’t bring the portcullis down to “close for business”, it will snowball to the point I can’t control anything anymore and I’ll end up in crisis. Many times I’ve said “sure!” to taking on more work when the voice in the back of my mind is groaning with frustration at me as it’s preparing to hunker down for an almighty crash. It was the wrong decision and I always try to learn from it.

The thing is, my first instinct used to be to tell myself “I just need to get up and go, I’ll be fine when I get there”, fully subscribed to a mindset that’s drip-fed to us day in and day out from a young age. I’m sure the majority of us have been given this piece of advice at some point and it’s a very hard lesson to unlearn. There ends up being a sense of obligation and if I duck out, I’ll feel guilt. I’ll feel like I took the easy way out and didn’t make the effort I should have.

That word, “should”, is often a troublesome one. It’s a word I had to wrestle with for a while after I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder, as I realised it had been a stealthy enemy for a long time. Many times I’d gone somewhere, agreed to do something or taken on more work because I probably should. I began to question…who said so?

“If you don’t push yourself, who will?” quizzed a motivational message I scrolled across on social media. I feel a pang of shame before I remind myself that safeguarding my stability is more important to me than proving something to other people. By the same token, if I don’t patrol my boundary walls and protect my wellbeing, who will? There’s a definite obligation to be constantly striving to be “doing”, and those of us with mental illnesses are unwillingly cloaked under the blanket.

So how do we know when it’s time to get up and shake ourselves, and when it’s time to have a duvet day? There aren’t any hard and fast rules I can offer here, even to myself. I can’t create a checklist of which specific tasks I should and shouldn’t avoid and when; it’s too nuanced for that. It’s about feeling it. Patterns can start to emerge that we can learn from, then it’s possible to feel when it’s the right thing to give yourself a shove, or when it’s sofa time.

The guilt also continues to ease, as I remind myself of what happens when I don’t respect my illness. The memories of not being well because I didn’t listen to my brain serve as a vivid warning. I realise it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity.

Some convictions begin with roots of the most positive intentions. I’m sure there’s a well-meaning heart at the centre of the “push yourself” message; it’s designed to impress upon us the idea that we’re capable of so much more than we imagine. Sometimes though, the things we should be proud of are setting limits. For some, drawing a line in the sand takes just as much strength and courage to drag that stick with intention and purpose, as it does for someone else who’s challenge is to scuff their line out and move beyond it.

Finding the Self through self-compassion

Written by Aaliyah

Two years ago, the idea of “Covid-19” seemed surreal but fast forward two years and it now seems somewhat “surreal” and difficult to recall life before Covid-19. I think its fair to say the last few years have been extremely difficult on all levels – emotionally, mentally physically and psychologically. Despite the pandemic being a universal and socially shared experience some of us have never felt so far apart. Distant from the world, from the future, from our loved ones but most importantly distant from ourselves. Even if we remove Covid-19 from the mix, life has its own events which it throws at us such as bereavement, financial difficulties, relationship struggles etc. Amongst these various events we can often feel weighed down and experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, disgust and shame. It can be difficult to come to terms with or even acknowledge these emotions and before we know it, we can be left feeling overwhelmed, exhausted or in my own experience “burnt out”.

Whilst we may see this in a negative light I believe it doesn’t always have to be a “bad thing”. Not at all! If anything in these last few years I have come to change my mindset and think perhaps this is the body and minds way of protecting themselves. These defensive emotions aren’t always “bad”. Rather they can simply be triggered by our bodies as a way of dealing with all our stressors, worries and concerns. When these emotions arise to the surface we often feel sad, burdened and even ‘defeated’. However, I have started to learn if we take a step back and become more observant and understanding of our emotions we can then re-direct our thinking to focus on more helpful and happy things. During times of fear and uncertainty one way for me to navigate my emotions and gain a sense of control has been through the practice of “self-compassion”. By practicing to be kinder and less harsh on myself I have learnt to feel less anxious and more assured in my day to day life. Now of course self-compassion isn’t like a magic wand which you can remove all of life’s problems but what it can do is help you feel more safe, secure and at peace with yourself and even others.

At this point you must be thinking “So what is this “self-compassion”?”. Well it can be as simple as it sounds! I believe it can be a skill, something which you can practice and grow. It’s the act of being sensitive to your own hardship and the hardship of others but also wanting to relieve this hardship by promoting kindness, warmth and helpful emotions or thoughts. I think it is important to know being kind to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you are weak or needy, a misconception I once had. I have come to learn being self-compassionate can actually help you establish boundaries and understand your inner self better so you are able to live in a way in which you feel more fulfilled and positive.

Now the important question… How do we actually practice self-compassion? I don’t think there is one strict formula to follow. I’m still well on my way to understanding self-compassion better myself but for me it was simply finding new hobbies in the form of painting or re-sparking an old an existing passion by getting back into baking. For me it involves doing something I like, something I enjoy and something which helps me feel relaxed and in the moment. For you it can also be as simple as tapping into little moments where you are kind, nurturing and caring to yourself. This could be anything ranging from reading, gardening, meditation to learning an instrument, starting a new sport or joining a club. Everyone has that something which helps them feel happy or brings them a sense of peace. Something you can do no matter what the weather is or what time of year it is. Once you find that private little thing which brings you joy, its important to hold onto that.

Apart from having a physical aspect, self-compassion can also come in other forms. It can involve being more in touch with your emotions. We often find ourselves focusing on our physical bodily needs which is a great form of self-compassion but it is also important that we don’t ignore our mental, emotional and psychological needs. It’s good to have a balance as we often find our mental needs come hand in hand with our physical needs. By taking the time to observe and pay attention to how you feel and what that feeling means to you, you can come to understand your personal needs and how to cater to them. For me when I’m having a bad day I now try to notice warning signs such as my mood slipping and acknowledge this rather than brushing it off. I find it is important to try to step back and say “I don’t feel too good right now and that’s okay. I need some time to myself to do something I enjoy and to work on this so I can understand why I feel like this”. You can also try to practice this positive talk through mindfulness techniques or compassionate exercises (these can be found through the references below). Rather than being harsh on yourself you can learn to have a more compassionate space for any unpleasant feelings. Of course, this isn’t always easy and is something which will come with time, patience and encouragement. Remember you are allowed to be a ‘masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.’

For decades, research and psychologists have suggested practicing simple self-compassion techniques in our daily lives can help increase our wellbeing, resilience, motivation and drive while reducing self-criticism, self-doubt and worry. I am a big advocate for self-compassion. By learning to be kinder to myself, understand my thoughts, feelings and behaviour I have learnt to nourish, flourish and ground myself in these difficult times – and so can you! Learning to understand your mind, body and soul is not an easy journey but it is a meaningful one. Try to take a step back from time to time to focus on the journey and not the destination.

As this comes to an end it doesn’t have to be the end! Please know that this is just my own reflection of self-compassion and the meaning I have extracted from my personal research. However, if you are interested in exploring self-compassion some more, below are some useful sources to help you get started:

Useful References:



The Compassionate Mind (by Paul Gilbert)