Times have been difficult the last few years. You’re still navigating a global pandemic, you’re witnessing political upheaval, financial struggles, deaths of friends and loved ones, global warming … the list goes on and on.
Trying to maintain a positive attitude (i.e., to see the silver lining or make lemons out of lemonade) can be tough these days. It can be especially hard when it seems everyone around you is exuding positivity. Every time you scroll social media, someone has an inspirational quote and meme or is wearing a shirt that says, “Only Good Vibes” or “No Bad Days.”
It can be comforting to know that through all this, there will be better days ahead. But responding to distress, sadness, anxiety and other “unpleasant” emotions with false positivity could actually do you more harm than good. So-called positive thinking can become toxic, or toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is a belief that people should be positive in all areas and experiences, even the ones that are difficult or sad,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, AZ. “It can be directed toward yourself and to others.”
Positivity is generally not harmful and can be actually beneficial, but it becomes toxic when it dismisses your genuine emotions or is enforced as the only way to be or feel.
How toxic positivity affects relationships
Toxic positivity can provide false reassurance to others or comes across as a lack of empathy, like telling someone who recently lost a parent or loved one, “Everything will be OK.”
“Everything isn’t OK, because they’ve had a loss,” Dr. Fox said. “Comments like this can really shut another person down and create a level of disconnect.”
With children, toxic positivity can send a message that their negative feelings aren’t OK. It can influence how they develop and respond to emotions, how they express themselves and may even impact how they behave as adults.
How toxic positivity affects you
Experiencing pain, hardships, loss and disappointment are a part of life—it’s unavoidable. While we can’t prevent these experiences from happening, we can control how we experience them. Do you lean into them, or do you try to avoid and escape them?
It’s natural to not want to deal with your negative emotions sometimes but doing so can take a toll on you—mentally and physically.
“Research has shown those who avoid negative emotions often feel worse later on,” Dr. Fox said. “If you keep avoiding the natural negative emotions, they’ll keep coming back ten-fold.”
Signs you may have toxic positivity
Recognizing the signs of toxic positivity is important, so you can create safer spaces for you and others to talk about genuine feelings.
Some signs of toxic positivity include:
- Hiding or disguising your true feelings
- Feeling guilty or ashamed for feeling a certain way
- Minimizing, dismissing or shaming other people’s feelings because they make you uncomfortable
- Brushing off or ignoring your problems
- Comparing or downplaying your problems with others
- Using feel-good statements for negative feelings or experiences
How to deal with toxic positivity
If you’ve been affected by toxic positivity or you recognize the signs in yourself, there are things you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include:
Acknowledge your emotions
Acknowledge all your emotions—both the peaks of happiness and the valleys of sorrow. “You don’t want to prioritize positive emotions over negative ones,” Dr. Fox said. “All emotions are useful tools to deal with the world around you and both emotions are just as equally valid.”
Instead of telling yourself, “Don’t be so negative,” let yourself know that it’s OK to feel bad sometimes. It’s OK to not be OK. Your feelings are real, they are valid, and they are important.
“If you feel like you always have to be ‘on’ or positive, you aren’t being truthful to yourself and to others,” Dr. Fox said. “Life is an emotional process and good and bad feelings are a part of our human existence.”
Listen and validate other people’s feelings
When a friend or loved one shares difficult emotions, don’t shut them down with positive platitudes. Instead of telling others, “You should see the bright side,” let someone know it can be tough and you are there to listen and help. Their feelings are real, they are valid, and they are important.
“Have a moment of self-reflection and ask yourself how you can support them without jumping to positive statements,” said Dr. Fox. “How do you emotionally respond to people in difficult situations and how can you be more self-aware and present the next time someone shares something difficult?”
Find healthy ways to express and manage your emotions
It may be easier to brush aside or pretend uncomfortable emotions aren’t really there. But if you can manage and handle difficult emotions, you can work through almost anything.
This doesn’t mean lashing out or complaining all the time. It’s about verbalizing emotions and finding healthy coping mechanisms. This may mean speaking with a licensed behavioral health specialist or simply writing down your feelings in a journal. In addition, you can also learn to practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.
If certain friends and family spew toxic positivity, it can be helpful to set boundaries, so you protect your mental health. Find people who will accept you unconditionally and can help you through hard times. If you still feel lonely or sad, reach out to a licensed behavioral health specialist who can help you navigate your emotions.
Limit social media use if you need to
Social media, especially platforms like Instagram, is a rose-colored look at someone else’s life. Many people only post about the positives in their lives, rarely their flaws or faults. As a result, it may seem like everyone is living their best lives while you’re left feeling more alone, ashamed and embarrassed. But looks can be deceiving.
Take a break from social media if you begin to yourself comparing yourself to others, or others to you. Pay attention to how you feel after interacting with social media. If you are left feeling a sense of shame or guilt, it might be due to toxic positivity. In such cases, it can be helpful to limit how much social media you’re consuming.
At one time or another, we’ve all engaged in toxic positivity—often by no fault of our own. By learning to recognize and deal with it allows you to provide and receive genuine support when you or someone else needs it.
If you notice yourself spiraling down an “all-or-nothing” mindset, it’s time to reassess how you should go about supporting yourself and others. It’s better to acknowledge all of your emotions, both the good and the bad.
“Ask yourself if you’re really being positive or are you not addressing the negative emotions you’re suffering from,” Dr. Fox said. “If you’re not addressing them, it’s not positivity; it’s toxic positivity.”