It’s one of those toxic positivity ideas – that we can always choose how we react. It blatantly isn’t true – torture and brainwashing alike exist because we know perfectly well that in the right conditions people are robbed of their ability to choose how they react. We know that trauma often leaves people unable to control their reactions to certain situations. If we’ve been taught to respond in a particular way, it can take a lot of work to change our reactions.
Making it all about how a person chooses to react provides effective cover for bullies. It’s not them bullying you, it’s you choosing to feel this way about the situation! I’ve seen this in action and it is unpleasant indeed. It can protect people from looking at their own behaviour and actions, making the person who has been hurt wholly responsible for the situation.
If your reactions are actually pretty reasonable and the situation itself isn’t, then a focus on how you react isn’t going to help. It can be a distraction from holding boundaries, seeking help or demanding better. If, for example, you are depressed because you are exhausted, choosing to react differently means getting to still be exhausted while gaslighting yourself over the depression. This only makes things worse. Sometimes the key to improving a situation is not changing your attitude to it, but getting the shit sorted out, which may involve getting others to take more responsibility.
People don’t tend to wave this sort of content about in response to joy. The odds are the only time you will have a conversation about how you choose your responses, is when you’re expressing ‘negative’ emotions. This can be a shut-down. All emotions are valid. Grief, sorrow, anger, resentment, bitterness and regret are all valid human emotions and you may need to work them through in order to either get somewhere better or figure out how to carry them. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s actually the healthier choice.
Supportive people will help you work through whatever you are feeling. They will validate you, comfort you and help you find ways through. They may help you explore different possible responses to situations or suggest other ways of thinking about things, but they won’t invalidate your feelings. Toxic people will tell you that you get to choose how you feel – implying that you should have chosen a different response, and may even act like this information is a fabulous and benevolent gift.