There’s a fine line between positivity and denial

Edit: I found this funny/sad article about toxic workforce “positivity”, and I see how positivity has been weaponized against workers: https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/people-sharing-most-cult-job-034503536.html

What is Toxic Positivity?

I heard the term “Toxic Positivity” recently and as a person who promotes positive self-talk, I have to admit I was intrigued but also concerned that my writing could be interpreted as Toxic Positivity.

Diving in a little, I Googled the term and found this article explaining it: “What Is Toxic Positivity?” by Kendra Cherry.

from “What Is Toxic Positivity?” by Kendra Cherry

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.

We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental well-being. The problem is that life isn’t always positive. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, are important and need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly. 

Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren’t strictly happy or positive.

from “What Is Toxic Positivity?” by Kendra Cherry

From what I have been able to determine, Toxic Positivity entails a strong denial of anything negative in our lives, basically sweeping the dirt under the rug in order to maintain a bright facade.

Of course, this is extremely unhealthy, and is the path to becoming even more depressed and anxious because we aren’t able to heal if we ignore the problems!

What is regular Positivity and how do we use it for our benefit?

Having come out of a past where I had been emotionally damaged and subsequently struggled with depression and anxiety, one of the tools I used was positive quotes to help rewire my brain into thinking differently, and not just jumping down the old rabbit holes which just sucked me into their vortex.

I understand the feelings of shame and guilt, but I also recognized they came from my past and weren’t actually a product of reading positive quotes.

The duration of going through healing is a troubling and disturbing time because many of the things we had shoved deep down are now vying for our attention. This period of time can be very gut-wrenching as we struggle to make sense of what happened to us and to tentatively start to pave our new pathway in life.

When we go through abuse, whatever type it is, we internalize the way we were treated and come to the wrong belief that we were responsible, and were to blame for what happened, because that is the deep message our abuser leaves us with.

“You MADE me do this to you!” is either overtly said to us, or it has been inferred by the abuser’s behavior.

When we come to deeply believe the lies, they become part of our inner negative self-talk, picking up where the abuser left off. We call ourselves names when we see ourselves messing up, and can truly be very harsh and demeaning to ourselves, saying things we wouldn’t say to other people. We’ve effectively learned to abuse ourselves.

Unpacking the lies, learning they were lies and not our truth is truly eye-opening.

Separating ourselves from the lies is difficult, because who ARE we when we eliminate the lies?

Those lies may have been such a deep part of our lives for so long, that we STRUGGLE with this question. More importantly, the feelings of guilt and shame of feeling our feelings rear up incredibly strong, threatening to overpower us.

Yet, what are those feelings, except being part of the package of lies!

I know when I was going through my own healing I struggled with those same emotions as I tried to glue myself back together.

When I realized I didn’t actually need to GLUE myself together as much as I needed to just BUILD my fresh foundation and lay everything I wanted to be as a human on top of that, I found myself feeling liberated.

Who I was before was a broken person.

I honored her by doing a lot of writing and emotional art-making to not only exorcise myself of the negativity and the pain but also to start to infuse pieces of positivity which my brain used as a life-raft to transport me slowly from the wastewater of the broken to the solid, healthy ground I get to walk on now.

Teaching myself to think about myself positively, to teach myself to speak encouragingly and supportively to myself was difficult because it was all alien to me.

This is where I borrowed the strength of writers who seemed to have experienced what I had but who had come out the other side and were offering up their positivity and snippets of wisdom.

I didn’t have much emotional or mental bandwidth to do this deep inner work for long periods, and somehow, the positive side seemed far more exhausting to me than the negative.

Looking back I now understand that I was very comfortable with the negative, having lived with it for so many years. It was something I could slip into very easily because it was what I knew.

The positive however was exhausting!

I didn’t know how to feel joy or happiness without having a sense of impending doom and dread of the negative coming swooping in with a vengeance for allowing myself to feel joy.

It took a long time to rewire my brain to simply be able to accept something good in my life without feeling guilt, shame, or fear of being punished for feeling positive.

We need to practice persistence

Brain Rewiring is very possible, for each of us, but does require persistence! Creating new Neural Pathways is an act of love we give to ourselves!

It’s easy to give up on ourselves when we feel overwhelmed and crawl back into our dark cave where we nurse our negative feelings.

Learning to become healthier and learning to stop beating ourselves up isn’t about denying we have these difficult feelings, it’s about acknowledging them, yet choosing to sidestep them paralyzing us and preventing us from feeling good about ourselves.

Below is a list of my favorite posts which speak to these issues in more depth and offer you different tips for moving forward out of the dark uncomfortable cave, out of the wastewater, and instead navigating to the solid, healthy ground!

I hope you’ll poke around my Archived Posts to find a wonderful trove of supportive and encouraging posts!

I’m sharing more posts that may be helpful for you:

More good stuff:

Please

Blessings!
Thank you for sharing this post and for following me!
Tamara
https://tamarakulish.com/ Archived Posts: https://tamarakulish.com/archived-posts/

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Developing Happiness When You Can’t Find It and How to Heal Your Life on a Deep Heart Level are available in paperback and Kindle. Audio book available!

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43 thoughts on “There’s a fine line between positivity and denial

  1. It was difficult for me to believe that I could read such a long article. Your style certainly captivated my attention. Your content is always excellent. Great Article Neil. I have read it a couple of days ago, but didn’t make a comment, but felt this article was good enough to merit a mention. you, I’ll be applying some of these suggestions on my websites in the near future!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Devang! I visited your blog and read your post about plants and their uses. I learned something new too! I appreciate you stopping by!

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        1. Wow! I really appreciate your approach! I prefer seeing people go through my posts slowly because some of the ideas are quite different from mainstream but hopefully full of tips to help!

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  2. Toxic positivity is something that has been irritating me for a few years now. I believe the term became more popular due to social media and that’s how I heard about it. It annoys me because it strays people away from actually having a positive life. Positivity is fantastic and can do wonders for people when practiced correctly. However, denying anything negative and living in some sort of euphoric delusion helps no one.
    I’m so glad you shared this post because I suffer from anxiety and depression too and rewiring my brain has been wonderful. I feel so much better now but I still go to therapy to deal with the past and negative stuff because I know it needs to be done. You can still remain positive while dealing with all that.

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    1. Right?! I absolutely feel that positivity is a TOOL, but it doesn’t make a realistic end result! Bravo to you for seeking and getting help!

      Fakeness has always aggravated me! In learning about toxic positivity I learned how it negatively affects all of us, because it has placed an unrealistic expectation in people’s minds. In my books I talk about doing the difficult inner work, but there’s some folks now who will shy away from facing and dealing with the dark shadows from their pasts, because the work is HARD, and if it seems like simply thinking positive will do the trick, that’s what they want. Unsurprisingly, when it doesn’t work out the way they want they become upset.

      At the beginning of my healing journey I ran into a few people pushing those unhealthy tropes, and they tried to make me feel badly about actually doing the work.

      Years later, I’m glad I did because I’m not the same person I was before, and I’m not continuously struggling.

      I think they see the struggle and in their minds are trying to be helpful, but telling someone to brush their past under a rug and just put on a happy face doesn’t do the job, does it?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, exactly. It’s a great tool but at the end of the day you need to do the work to get to a place where you’re actually okay and not just faking it.

        I think people are scared to face their issues and would rather pretend they don’t exist because they’re afraid. It can be really scary especially at first. However, pretending like you’re okay all the time just prolongs your pain it doesn’t make it go away.

        I’m so glad you took that route instead of falling for toxic positivity. Not everyone is that lucky.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks! I’m glad you’re not taking the “easy” route either!

          I was very surprised that most of the people who were telling me to just put on a happy face were the people who were assigned to me when I joined a fundamental church. Their thought process was since Jesus saved me that alone would heal me and out of gratitude I needed to just be happy about it.

          When I spoke about doing the inner work, I was told not to spend time worrying about that but just to put my energy into studying the Bible. Unfortunately, I saw many people like me who came from traumatic pasts who were discouraged from attending to our mental health.

          The very fact that we struggled with depression and anxiety was a sign to them of our lack of faith, so we were “corrected” by a whole group of people at once, like a group intercession. Of course the effect this had on us was to plunge each of us deeper into our depressions and anxieties.

          When I left the church, I learned to give myself permission to attend to my mental health. Unfortunately my experience with the church made me wary of mental health professionals, so I found help in self help individuals and their teachings.

          I guess that informs my entire message and approach, but even though I had a difficult time approaching mental health professionals, I encourage and support anyone else who chooses to go, for getting outside help does speed the process instead of trying to figure it out oneself.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh wow that’s really sad. You can have faith but still struggle with mental health problems. It doesn’t mean you lack faith in any way. It’s sad that people who were struggling with mental health issues were encouraged to repress them. That can be extremely damaging for them.

            Yes, medical health professionals aren’t for everyone and finding the right one is tough. I went through a number of them before finding the right one for me. I’m glad you were still able to use self-help information to better your mental health.

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            1. I agree with you. Unfortunately, too many religious people have falsely equated mental health struggles with a lack of faith, and they refuse to acknowledge the two can reside together. Their response is to claim we don’t have enough faith, for if we did we wouldn’t be feeling anxious. That’s so false. That line of teaching also then keeps many people from seeking mental health help, for they have been told it is simply something they lack. Even when I went to a counselor, I wasn’t completely open, for I was projecting the shield of “faith” so I wouldn’t be criticized! Gets very messed up!

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              1. Yeah I think people see mental health issues as not having enough faith but of course that’s not true. That’s why religious people are so afraid to seek help or even talk to people about anything negative.

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              2. I’ve observed exactly that going on, and people are miserable yet trying to mask what’s going on inside of themselves. Without a healthy outlet to be able to deal with and acknowledge any mental health issues, it comes out negatively, either against themselves with different addictions, or against others via hateful/hurtful messaging, either verbally or online. Some of the people I have seen struggling the most are those either still in the churches, or those who have left, and they struggle with not feeling guilty about needing help.

                I hope that by talking about this it could possibly help someone who may see themselves in these words.

                Liked by 1 person

              3. Yeah a lot of people have breakdowns because of holding all that stuff in and having no outlet. It’s really sad that the people and institutions that should help people in need sometimes end up doing the opposite.

                Yeah I think talking about it is great because it helps people see that they aren’t alone in feeling the way they do. Other people experience these negative things too.

                Liked by 1 person

              4. Yes, I personally witnessed quite a few people (men and women) having mental breakdowns in church. They were crying in the bathrooms every week. When they’d leave the church we were told it was because they were a sinner and we weren’t to stay in contact with them.

                So you had a bunch of people who were isolated from friends and family in the beginning, because “they’re of this world and will try to pull you away from what God wants you to do”, they were systematically broken down, so they “could be built back up how God wants them to be”, then when their anxieties and depression became overwhelming they were told they weren’t good Christians because they lacked faith. Sadly this has messed up too many people, and it’s not changing.

                I try to mention it on a semi-regular basis so that if there is anyone reading my posts who has gone through this, maybe they can find another way to see themselves and their mental health journey.

                Liked by 1 person

              5. Wow, that’s really harsh but yes that does happen often. When people bring very real problems to religious institutions they are simply told to have more faith but it isn’t always that simple.

                Liked by 1 person

              6. Right? I wanted to have that change, and spoke of it within the churches I had attended, but that didn’t go well at all. When people are in such deep denial about what people in the congregation are going through, one doesn’t have a chance of opening that door. When the appearance of piety is more important that actually helping people, there is no room for improving anything.

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              7. Yeah I absolutely agree. I think it’s the fact that people are in denial but also a lack of proper understanding of religion as well as lack of empathy towards the suffering of others.

                Liked by 1 person

              8. You nailed it! Clearly visible to those on the outside, yet invisible to those in the middle of it, except for those individuals who are stuck in the middle of that mind bending.

                Liked by 1 person

              9. I wish it were different. I stayed MUCH longer than I should have, hoping to make some kind of change from the inside, but that was like trying to whistle in a windstorm. Churches which aren’t as strict or fundamental are actually open to people seeking help from mental health professionals and don’t judge.

                Liked by 1 person

              10. When you’re the minority and the majority of people see things a different way it’s hard to make any changes from the inside as much as we try. Yeah I think some churches try really hard to help and encourage people to seek help but there are still some extremely orthodox or strict ones are not like that.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you, self help works best when we embrace both the positive and the negative.

    With regard to your friend, I used to think it was impossible for people to be truly happy, and I genuinely thought that people were faking it. Yes, there are people who fake it, as we know, but I thought everyone was faking.

    When I went through my healing, I set out to teach myself to like myself, because I realized that I disliked myself intensely and I spoke very harshly to myself, which threw me down the rabbit holes of depression and anxiety, every time.

    I was very surprised to discover one day after I could quite comfortably say to myself “I love you”, that I had become happy. This was astonishing to me, for I thought it was impossible. I then realized that when we internalize the abuse, the criticisms and the lies, that not only is our self worth greatly diminished, but we learn to dislike ourselves, sometimes quite intensely. By working on that area, we can in fact develop happiness.

    You may well have gone through all these steps and your happiness is genuine. It is based on having developed your self worth to the point where you can accept good things happening to you. This may be the area where your friend is still struggling and seeking his way.

    Bravo that he is reading various self help books, because there really isn’t going to be ONE book which can help everyone. Self help authors write from their own experiences and the lessons they learned, which doesn’t always transpose onto other people. He needs to follow his gut and listen to what resonates within him, to find his own path to healing and wholeness.

    I have issues with how the law of attraction is presented, for it does seem to fall into victim blaming quite often. From some teachers I have learned that our emotional state is more important, so being in a state of acceptance and love for ourselves and others helps us to see possibilities and options we previously didn’t see or were able to consider when we were angry or depressed or anxious.

    Our thoughts do affect so much, and teaching ourselves to choose new ones is difficult because we need to lay down new neutral pathways. This process can be quite difficult, especially in the beginning when our old negative neutral pathways very “helpfully” try to pull us into our old short-cut go-to thoughts, even though we end up depressed and angry with ourselves.

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  4. Timely sharing with this post Tamara – I came across this term a few weeks ago after a discussion with a friend.

    They’ve recently gone through a divorce and he’s rediscovered self-improvement and is now endlessly repeating things from self-improvement books.

    If it helps him feel better I don’t mind, though last time we spoke he dug a bit too deep into my own personal life, suggesting something was missing from my life and I just didn’t know it. All because I said I’m happy with my life because I have everything I ever wanted!

    I’ve probably gone on a bit of a personal tangent but it does make me think how self-help can lead to this toxic positivity – law of attraction for example, think of it and you shall become it – if only it was that easy!

    It becomes an excuse to ignore the negative emotions, holding all the issues in.

    Self-improvement is good, but we need that self-awareness and confidence to accept when something is not right!

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  5. What an in depth and thought-provoking post, Tamara. I’ve experienced the effects of “toxic positivity” regarding the tragic loss of my father when I was told that I need to “keep moving” and “think good thoughts” and “live my best life”. While these phrases may be meaningful in some contexts, they were not helpful to someone still struggling with PTDS from the event. Our culture admires people who put on a brave face, who quickly recover from hardships, and don’t show too much emotion. This extends to a cancer diagnosis. We expect the person to “battle” cancer with a stiff upper lip. Some people will tell you “studies” of how positive thinking cured the cancer or extended someone’s life. It’s really hard to put on a happy face when you’re sick from chemo. I consider myself a pretty positive person, but I’m all too aware of what’s lurking out there, of the fragility of life, and that we have to accept bittersweet sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe that we honor our spirits when we face ourselves and our difficulties. There’s no other way through to be able to develop happiness. My thinking does tend to go against the flow and I enjoy sharing what I learned.

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    2. Ps, I heard about having a positive outlook when dealing with cancer, but I also believe in using other healing modalities! A positive outlook is helpful for getting through the difficulties of cancer, but honestly there’s some things that people don’t realize about it and it doesn’t get talked about. I learned about this when I moved in with my daughter to help when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with her second cancer, this one was stage 4 Lung tumors. The aggressive chemo and radiation treatments wreaked havoc on the 1 year old’s body. For her, we needed to just show her tons of love and make her feel safe. I think that’s a big thing we can do for ourselves.

      PTSD is also difficult to deal with, I know, I have it too. Teaching myself to like myself was huge, for when I was triggered I’d usually end up falling down into rabbit holes of depression and anxiety, due to my speaking very harshly and unkindly to myself. Teaching myself to like myself took a lot of work because I had to lay down a whole new neutral pathway network. I had to rewire my brain. This is doable but does take time and a lot of effort. Positive thoughts and quotes really helped me through this process, but I also had collected a whole bunch of different quotes and memes to be able to pull the appropriate thought. Simply saying something positive won’t work as effectively as finding the thought which resonates in the moment.

      All recovery takes time. It took me years to recover from my past. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to just breeze through it and be done in say a week on a retreat! (Though some pamphlets set up an unrealistic expectation that this is possible and doable! Then when we ourselves aren’t able do that, there’s the implication that there’s something wrong with us for not doing what others have been able to do.

      We each have our own time-line for our healing and growth. If we experienced a lot of damage from our past it takes time to heal. Like a broken leg needs more time to heal than a small cut.

      Take your time. Follow what resonates within you to create your own healing path.

      There are many people like me offering helpful tips based on our own experiences, but ultimately, you are your own unique person who has gone through experiences unique to you.

      You get to choose from all the advice and all the tips.

      There’s no right or wrong way to approach this, you just need to follow what resonates within you. Keep following your gut! It knows what is best for you!

      You can do this!

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      1. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comment.”Simply saying something positive won’t work as effectively as finding the thought which resonates in the moment.” Yes, I totally agree. I have a collections of quotations that resonate with me and that I use to direct my writing. I find the more “Hallmark” type unhelpful. I want to make sure you didn’t misunderstand what I meant about cancer. Thank you for sharing your experience. Some patients can be made to feel like they didn’t try hard enough to be positive if their cancer returns or isn’t in remission. Same with grief. Like you said, you just have to move through it. Trying to showering a grieving person with positivity only makes the clouds more grey, in my experience. We must make room for all feelings while moving forward. I look forward to reading more of your writing and journey.

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        1. I’m in agreement with you on all points. Life is about learning to deal with the ups and downs, not to ignore them in the hope they go away, or magically resolve themselves. Positivity is a tool, to help us to see things differently and to be able to rewire our brain waves. I believe we are put through different situations for different reasons, and ignoring the emotional aspect of any situation is a recipe for mental health issues of all kinds. Kudos to you for all the work you are doing!

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    1. Wow! Thanks so much for your supportive words! I hope there’s great information for you in the posts!

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  6. Beautiful post, Tamara! I’ve never thought your writing was anything but the inspiration to heal with great examples and strength. But I love that you examine toxic positivity in this post and provide an excellent contrast between in and the foundational work of building positive esteem. Wonderful work as always!

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    1. Thanks so much for your support Wynne. It means so much to me. I find my insecurities still come in, but I’m trying to channel them into self reflection, to guage where I am and if necessary to slightly alter my course. There’s always going to be fine lines between different things, but if we gather up our courage and do some self examination, we come out ahead.

      This exercise helped me become aware of how some people are interpreting these things which are circulating and to find where I can offer a little guidance and support.

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  7. I hadn’t heard of toxic positivity until about a month ago. I was like, “What? How can being positive be toxic?” But the truth is that if you’re always jolly and never let any other feelings in, you’re not being real. Positivity is awesome, don’t get me wrong. But if that’s the only emotion you feel or portray, something’s not right.

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    1. I totally agree with you Rita! I don’t believe that the ultimate goal is to be positive ALL the time, nor is it healthy! We need to be able to go through our difficulties, honor the negative feelings we experience, because that’s all part of our human process.

      For me learning to be positive is knowing that I have what it takes to be able to handle the things life throws at me, and not crumple up. Positivity teaches my spirit I have what it takes to move through something and not feel overwhelmed and overpowered by it. Positivity helps me from falling down the rabbit holes of depression and anxiety, because those holes were based on lies I had been told about myself and what I was actually capable of doing!

      Positivity is a tool, not an end goal! (Hmm, I may have the title of a new post!)

      While it has been an amazing tool for me, I’m learning that because of how it has been presented, many people are feeling bludgeoned by it instead of uplifted. I believe that this needs to be written more about!

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  8. Couldn’t agree more Tamara. I frequently get irritated by all the toxic positive posts, often censoring my own feelings at the behest of those who can tolerate only the positives. My fault entirely but recently I’ve been reading similar feelings from others. It’s one thing looking towards the positive slant – if and when there is one – but quite another inventing positives at the expense of voicing our very real feelings of negativity. Before we are able to embrace the positives we need to be able to air our feelings of negativity rather than gloss over them.
    Great post thank you.

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    1. My pleasure Margaret! I’m so happy this connected with you and wasn’t something that was a source of irritation. I do write a lot about building new neutral pathways, and perhaps I need to write more about the gut wrenching process we go through to get there, and the tools we can use to help ourselves through this.

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  9. Great post dear lady, it is a very big pathway. That negativity is indeed a hard journey simply because we have lived with it for so long. But, as you said, learning to change that is hard…,but…when we see each ‘bits’ truth, that understanding allows us to ‘let it go’. And that is life’s purpose, to show us that we have been living that lie and can only remove it by understanding it. And we will, even the more ingrained parts of us need a more confronting event or we will not face it. It is a protection mechanism to build those inner walls because we think they are the terror of terrors. So a little at a time we are asked to face, see through, and finally understand that part of us we had dared not face…but…in seeing it and understanding it, that wall is broken and it finally releases that ‘on guard’ part of us that was ever there in everything we faced. And the change is profound, we have never been there before and it puts us into a very beautiful place simply because that emotional ‘weight’ is gone and we no longer need to ‘react’ to this world but now slowly rebuild and ‘create’ what our hearts have ever tried to…that love and happiness we have always looked for. Thank you for sharing a very difficult part of us…but can be seen for what it is and free us 😀❤️🙏🏽

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    1. I love your response Mark, indeed, removing those inner walls is sometimes done brick by brick as we become aware that they aren’t needed. We put them up as a protective device, and when we change and no longer fall I to the same pitfalls we did before, no longer falling for the same traps and baits we once did, we are able to slowly remove the inner walls.i think I need to write more about this process, for those inner walls prevent us from seeing the fullness of who we are and from living our lives freely.

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      1. It is a journey dear lady and teaches us much so that we will appreciate the destination. Each part is building something very beautiful. And yes, we don’t know what it will look like until it is finished, but along the way many flashes of it stand out to let us know that what we are building is very beautiful indeed 😀❤️🙏🏽

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        1. There are more and more of us healing and then offering support for others. Together we are becoming a network, like a spider web, strong. Like the network of roots in a forest, we are helping and nurturing one another.

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