We all know the importance of staying positive and how good it is for our mental well-being. There’s nothing wrong when people around you tell you to “stay positive” or to “look on the bright side of things” when you experience rough times. They do so to remind us to stay focused. We also know for the fact that they mean well and they never meant to hurt our feelings. However, this false sense of positivity can be harmful when it is forceful or invalidates our true feelings. Overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state or a fake sense of staying positive is what we call toxic positivity.
There is a crucial difference between a positive outlook and toxic positivity. Cultivating positive outlook does not mean that you have to be happy throughout. And more so in certain difficult situations, the so called positive thinking can actually become toxic. Because forcing ourselves to remain positive or deny our true feelings during such times leads to more stress and anxiety.
While feeling positive can help you stay calm during a crisis, overemphasising its importance or pursuing positive emotions in certain ways to silence your negative experiences makes you positivity toxic. It is very easy to become so focused on staying positive that one may end up living in denial of his/her negative emotions. Toxic positivity reduces our authentic emotional experience.
Constant positivity is a form of avoidance. It’s okay to have negative emotions.Tweet
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is having a ‘good vibes only’ approach to life no matter how difficult the situation may be. Sometimes when we have a mountain of heavy emotions, rather than acknowledging them, we smear positivity over them and go about our day. Most of us do this because we believe that being positive is the only correct way to live our lives. And therefore we tend to put a positive spin on all our experiences even those that are negative.
Toxic positivity should not be confused with those who actually have an optimistic outlook or possess a positive personality. These people tend to focus on the upside of life but will embrace all emotions both bad and good. Whereas toxic positivity imposes positive thinking as the only solution to problems thereby not paying heed to negative emotions or experiences.
Signs of toxic positivity
No doubt positive thinking focuses on improving one’s self-efficacy and their ability to cope. But when one demands that others should have a positive mindset and exude only positive emotions and thoughts at all times, regardless of the challenges they face, it becomes toxic. The signs of toxic positivity can be very subtle. However, by recognising them one can try and overcome such behaviours.
- Hiding or masking your true feelings.
- Avoiding or denying problems rather than facing them.
- Feeling guilty for your negative emotional states or feelings.
- Invalidating others’ experiences with feel good statements or positive sayings.
- Pretending like everything is going great. We sometimes do so to self-protect from vulnerability or when we don’t want to burden others with our negative emotions.
- Responding to distress with false reassurances. We resort to false reassurances when certain emotional situations make us uncomfortable.
- Focusing more on gratitude, comparisons to rationalise that everything happens for a reason.
Why is it harmful ?
An excessive need to hold a perpetual positive outlook to the point that we avoid or deny our own emotions is is detrimental to our well-being. This is because, by merely remaining positive does not negate the difficult situation we are going through. Forced positivity can be manifested both inward and outward, depending on one’s personality. If you tend to internalise your feelings, you can often feel guilty for feeling negative. So, you choose to hide behind a mask as an attempt to dismiss your true feelings.
And if you are the one who tends to project your feelings onto others, you may dismiss others’ negative feelings by forcing them to focus only on positive. Such kind of glossing over may have some benefits. At the same time, it can be quite harmful if they are ill-timed or relied on excessively in inappropriate situations. Here is how it affects negatIvely.
Positive self statements may contradict an individual’s self-view
We all cover up our emotions but when this becomes a constant thing, it leads to problems especially when things are difficult. It discounts difficult emotions and make you hide behind a positive facade. For instance, asserting “everything happens for a reason” after a catastrophe might appear comforting, but it is also a way of avoiding someone else’s true feelings. Urging someone to “look on the bright side of things” when something bad happens might sound sympathetic. But it can also shut them down from sharing about what they are truly experiencing.
Others may find their feelings dismissed, ignored or outrightly invalidated.
Telling someone to “focus on the good things in their life” after they experienced some loss or disappointment might be well-intentioned. However, it might make their choices or feelings invalid. Similarly, saying that “everything will be okay” when someone is sharing how uncertain they are about their future might be reassuring. But it also might make you seem unwilling to share their anger, frustration, sadness or disappointment.
Poor communication and relationships.
Portraying seemingly perfect life makes you less approachable, relatable and difficult to connect with. This is because one cannot have s sincere and meaningful conversation with someone who denies their negative emotions. Also, this constant encouragement and excessive tendency to only see the good side of something in certain situations makes others view what happens to them as inconsequential.
Results in repressed emotions.
Dismissing your emotions only makes them stronger which can later manifest into health, relationship or interpersonal problems. Suppressed emotions manifest into fear, anxiety, and depression if you can’t find yourself feel positive in difficult situations. The truth is that we as humans are flawed and experience anger, resentment, or jealousy. By pretending that which we are not, we deny the validity of a genuine human experience. Sidestepping uncomfortable emotional situations makes you avoid your authentic nature.
Increases feelings of guilt and isolation.
Untimely positive responses may discourage them from facing the reality of their situation. Negating authentic emotional experiences makes one to feel pressured to be happy in the face of adversity. One is less likely to seek support and results in poor communication or low self-esteem.
How to avoid toxic positivity
It is quite unnatural for us to choose only positive emotions all the time. Toxic positivity has become more prevalent in the past year. The result is that many of us dealt with the pandemic, by forcing ourselves into a positive mindset and were quick to invalidate negative emotions like anxiety, fear or sadness. Instead of practising true positivity, gratitude and happiness, many of us are prone to toxic positivity. Whether you are exhibiting toxic positivity towards yourself or others, there are certain things that you can do to develop a healthier and a more supportive approach. Here is how.
Deal with your negative emotions
Recognise, acknowledge and accept your emotions of discomfort rather than denying or avoiding them. The issue with only allowing happy thoughts in is that you end up suppressing negative emotions like fear, worry, sadness or anxiety. And these too are “real” emotions tied to our authentic experiences. Bottling those emotions up does not make them go away and more so we end up ignoring the important information they are providing that can lead to positive action.
Identify and label your negative emotions rather than trying to avoid. Remember that all emotions good or bad are functional and have a purpose. Look at negative emotions as tools of information, rather than focusing only on how they make you feel. Talking with trusted people about how you feel reduces the intensity of negative emotions such as sadness, anger or pain. Learn to embrace all kinds of emotions, the good and the bad. It’s important to not to feel guilty when those negative emotions arise in order to work through them.
Validate others’ feelings
Listen to validate how others feel even when it is different from yours. It can be pretty difficult to be around someone who is non-stop positive or one who isn’t a realist. This can even harm your friendships if you do not allow others to express anything but positivity, as opposed to sharing their truth with you. It is important to remember that everyone is entitled to their own feelings and not everyone can cope with difficult situations the way you do. You can avoid imposing toxic positivity on others by encouraging others to speak openly about how they feel instead of forcing someone to think positively.
Healthy positivity acknowledges authentic emotions and rejects either/or mindset. So, when someone is sharing about the fear they’ve been holding on to, or sharing their grief with you, empathise with them. Instead of a perpetual “good vibes only” mindset, you can use supportive phrases. For instance, ”it is okay to feel sad”, “I can understand why you feel that way”, “I know this is really hard”, “ I am here if you’d like to talk.” “I know you are capable of handling this” to provide support over unsolicited advice. This helps you build healthy and supportive relationships.
Reframe your toxic positive responses.
We sometimes resort to toxic positivity because we don’t know what to say to a person struggling with difficult emotions. Some positive phrases may seem helpful and encouraging, but may not really help the other going through crisis. They might also discount your genuine emotions to help. Reframe phrases like “it’s all good”, “just be happy”, “be positive” “look on the brighter side” “ be thankful for what you have” to phrases like “it’s okay to feel bad sometimes”, “it’s human to face challenges or hardships”, “failure is part of growing”, “how can I support you?”.
Brushing off someone’s concerns to make them feel better or urging them to thrive no matter what adversity they face might seem empathetic. But at the same time it denies people the authentic support they may need to cope. Motivational statements can turn toxic when they are forceful or when they invalidate real feelings of sadness, disappointment or hardship. Instead of shutting them down, let them know that what they are feeling is normal. This assures them that you are there to listen and share their true concerns.
Practice a mindful approach.
For people who can’t engage in difficult and vulnerable feelings, any feeling that isn’t positive feels huge. We often dismiss our difficult emotions by getting busy or soaking ourselves with some inspirational stuff. We tend to have excuses for not engaging with our complicated emotions since we don’t want to be distressed or upset others. Your negative emotions won’t go away unless you eventually deal with them. If you never try to let the hard feelings out through reflection, then every little feeling from the big to small can feel potentially unmanageable.
Being mindful helps you gain awareness of triggers or where they might be coming from. This can help you to address the underlying issues if any. Take few moments to reflect on your emotions and observe as to what is drawing your attention. For instance, if it’s anger, bringing it into your mindful awareness helps you recognise an expectation you’re holding that’s no longer viable. Welcome your experience just as it is, without judging. This paves the way to process the information rather than remaining stuck.
Be honest about what you feel.
The relationship you have with yourself is often reflected in the relationship you have with others. Instead of putting up a facade of positivity, be conscious of how you truly feel. During the time of emotional distress, avoid comparing yourself to others or to focus on gratitude as a way of bypassing your emotions. This doesn’t mean gratitude is a bad thing. It can be if you are using to invalidate yourself. So is comparison. In today’s ever connected world, it’s easy to compare your tough times with someone else’s triumphs or how well they handled their tough situations.
Also, most of the social media content promotes toxic positivity by posting what appears to be perfect lives. This can lead to having unrealistic expectations from yourself and your ability to be honest with your feelings. Protect yourself from this sense of lack, loneliness or embarrassment by distancing or unplugging yourself from unnecessary positivity of others. It is important to remember that it is okay not to be okay sometimes. And it‘s perfectly fine to allow yourself feel and process your tough emotions before looking on the bright side.
Questions for self-reflection
Do you always lead a seemingly perfect life? Do you often come across as a person who just thinks happy positive thoughts?
Is there an area of your life where you may be exhibiting in toxic positivity’?
How does your habit of engaging toxic positivity impacts your abilities to authentically connect with others?
How comfortable are you with sharing your difficult emotions with others?
Are you a kind of person who takes “good vibes only” approach towards others when they are around you?
Do you often overemphasise positive outlook from others in their most challenging situations?
How easy it is for others to connect with you emotionally? And How easily do you connect with others emotionally?
Do you accept, deny or avoid your negative emotional experiences?
There can be some real value in remaining positive and optimistic about challenging situations in life. But an authentic positive attitude is the one in tune with your emotions both good and bad. It lets you express authentic emotional empathy for others. On the other hand, toxic positivity doesn’t leave appropriate space for really any hard feelings. We all engage in toxic positivity at one point or the other whether it is dealing with ours or others’ difficult emotions.
By learning to recognise it, however, you will better be able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and become more aligned with your emotions. You will be able to provide more authentic support instead of forcing yourself or others into toxic positivity. And if you are being influenced by toxic positivity from others, set healthy boundaries with people who are judgmental of your authentic experiences.
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