In this Post:
- What is Toxic Positivity?
- Consequences of Toxic Positivity
- Seven Everyday Life Examples of Toxic Positivity
- Final Thoughts
Human beings seem to have a natural bias toward the negative. We tend to pay more attention to negative aspects and overlook the positive.
Psychologists believe human beings had to pay full attention to life-threatening signs. In the early days of human history, our survival depended on it.
Fast forwarding to today, we seem to display the same tendency. Interestingly, this bias has also shaped scholars’ interests and research direction.
Until recently, we knew very little about what makes life worth living. Psychology spent most of its resources on studying illness rather than wellness.
Thanks to research in the field of Positive Psychology, we now have a clearer picture. Here are some aspects that contribute to greater well-being:
- positive emotions,
- feeling engaged,
- positive relationships,
- a sense of meaning, and
This positive light on what makes us human and happier has been great. It has brought some balance to the study of human existence.
However, a lack of critical thinking has led people to unhealthy positivity. Instead of recognizing the value of negative emotions, people shut them down. They force a positive light onto all experiences.
Such an attitude can be harmful to people’s mental and emotional health.
What is Toxic Positivity?
The internet is packed with motivational quotes:
- Positive vibes only
- Every day is a good day to be happy
- Radiate kindness like confetti
Most of us love quotes like this. We tend to think they are positive and harmless. Aren’t they mean to motivate and inspire us to be and do better?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves. There is, however, a risk associated with this kind of quote. They reinforce toxic positivity.
Toxic Positivity is somewhat an escape. It is an obsession with positive thinking and attitudes. Are you having a bad day? Smile, you are being watched.
When positivity turns into a cult, it becomes a risk for emotional health. Not only for you but everyone around you.
Without realizing it, you are broadcasting the message that it is not ok to be not ok with something. You must perk up. Time is ticking. No room for grumpiness or heartache!
Despite their importance for well-being, forcing positive emotions is unhealthy. It is a way to silence, deny, or ignore negative emotions. These play a role too in our well-being journey.
Negative emotions are helpful signs. They warn us about aspects we should be looking into. Anger can be a natural response to social injustice or even abuse.
Anxiety can be a sign that we don’t have sufficient information to guide our thinking or actions. Sadness can indicate that something or someone is important to us.
Negative emotions and experiences need to be integrated into our well-being journey. They are not pleasant but they are part of human existence. Embracing them is the first step to healing them.
Consequences of Toxic Positivity
What we deny in ourselves, we tend to suppress in others too. When we don’t acknowledge our negative emotions and experiences, we may prevent others from doing the same.
At an individual level, we may shut down. Or even reach a level of overwhelm that compromises our mental health. The more we try to shake negative emotions off, the less energy and capacity we will have to keep going.
Complex negative emotions don’t disappear by themselves. Time alone does not heal. We need to sit down and face what our emotions have to tell us.
Dealing with the negative is not pleasant or comfortable, but ignoring or denying it only increases toxicity.
Dismissing the negative and solely holding on to the positive can also put you in situations that lack realism. This is what we also know as blind faith.
At a social level, toxic positivity reinforces you can’t be negative. You can’t hang around with your negative self. You should not carry that cloud with you.
Although most people have no intention to harm, their ready-made responses can hurt. Suggesting gratitude exercises right away invalidates what the person is feeling. The same goes for positive thinking.
This band-aid approach to negative emotions makes people feel worse. They add feelings of failure, incompetence, and frustration. They tell people they must endure and hang on.
Such an approach creates distance between people rather than bringing them closer. In the long run, relationships can become shallow and eventually break.
Seven Everyday Life Examples of Toxic Positivity
Situations requiring empathy and vulnerability are not always easy to deal with. Sometimes we don’t know what to do or say. Without intending it, we may contribute to feelings and experiences of invalidation.
One step we can take is to encourage openness and practice being fully present. We need to internalize that negative emotions are as just as valid as positive ones. The more we hold this idea, the more comfortable we will be with negative emotions.
Another step we can take is to stop the urge to make other people feel better. Sometimes people only need and want to be listened to. We may offer suggestions but we must create a safe space first for that person to share. They need to feel their feelings won’t be brushed off.
To make this point clearer and more concrete let’s look at some real-life examples.
Everything Will Work Out In The End
I’m guilty of saying this a lot, especially to myself. These words may sound innocent and even well-intended. However, they subconsciously give us the message that what we are feeling or thinking right now does not matter. Why waste time processing it?
Positive Vibes Only
I find this statement one of the most toxic ones we can find. It tells us that if we are not positive or happy, we are not welcome. It creates the pressure of having to be happy and excited all the time, even when we don’t feel like it. Be happy or you’re out.
If I Can Do It, So Can You!
This was by far one of my favourite quotes to use. I thought it was empowering. When I reflected on more recent experiences I immediately saw how toxic this can be. Just because someone lost weight with this or that approach, it doesn’t mean it will work for us the same way. We are all unique and it’s important to honour that.
Look For The Silver Lining
It’s nice when we can draw lessons or positive consequences from a less pleasant situation. It can take us time to reach that point though. Being suggested to look for the lessons or silver lining can bring frustration and despair. We might not yet have enough clarity about our feelings and experience to do that.
Everything Happens For a Reason
I’ve repeated this one countless times. When I stop to think about those moments in which I heard this… I know it didn’t help much. Again, we mean no harm, but when we say this to someone we are conveying to their subconscious that they have no reason to be upset. We are invalidating people’s emotional experiences.
It Could Be Worse
It can always be worse but that does not help us feel any better at the moment. When we say this to someone who is emotionally upset, we are forcing them to be grateful. Gratitude is a magical and special experience, but it cannot be forced or offered as a band-aid in a hot moment.
It Is What It Is
This is likely the one I dislike the most. When I hear this, I question myself. Really? Is that all you can tell me? Should I be happy or content? Grateful? This shows little empathy for what a person is feeling. It also plants the idea in your mind that you should be somewhat passive about it. It’s just life, isn’t it?
When we see people pushing positive thoughts or emotions, it does not mean they are being toxic. Positive thinking, gratitude, and positive reframing are helpful strategies.
These strategies can’t be, however, offered as band-aids. They can’t be a way for us to dismiss or shake off less pleasant emotional experiences. Whether our own or other people’s.
If we want to be positive role models, we need to be the first ones to embrace both sides of the emotional spectrum. For years, I have been the queen of emotional denial and I no longer want to contribute to that.
Learning about these seven real-life examples has made me rethink the way I exert my empathetic skills. I hope they will nudge you too.
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