It’s Time to Ditch Toxic Positivity
Why excessive optimism can be too much of a good thing.
Written by: Samra Karamustafic
Over the years, positive thinking has become quite the buzzword in health and wellness culture. Head on over to Instagram and you’ll find hundreds of pages dedicated to posting quotes like “good vibes only” and “the only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude,” and many more. On the surface level, these quotes sound harmless and uplifting; what, exactly, is so bad about sprinkling a bit of inspiration into someone’s day with a motivational quote? Is there even such a thing as “toxic positivity”?
There can always be too much of a good thing, and toxic positivity falls right into that category.
The answer to that question is a resounding yes, even if the term “toxic positivity” itself sounds like an oxymoron. There can always be too much of a good thing, and toxic positivity falls right into that category. Now, don’t get me wrong: positive thinking and other positivity practices can certainly provide many benefits in your life. In fact, according to Verywell Mind, positive thinking can provide you with stress relief, increased immunity and more. And, per Psychology Today, implementing certain positive practices in your life (like keeping a gratitude journal) can even improve your physical health, enhance empathy, and open the door to more relationships in your life. It’s only when one crosses the line from “positivity” to “toxic positivity” that it becomes an issue.
WHAT IS TOXIC POSITIVITY AND WHY IS IT HARMFUL?
Toxic positivity is essentially an obsession with positive thinking. According to Healthline, it’s the assumption that despite whatever difficult situation or emotional pain someone may be going through, they should be in high spirits, exuding positive vibes at all times.
Maintaining a positive mindset during a difficult time can be tremendously beneficial — just as long as you aren’t forcing yourself to suppress your emotions.
By forcing yourself into this form of extreme optimism, you’re essentially “invalidating real human experiences,” as licensed psychologist Dr. Amanda Darnley puts it. In a way, it’s a parallel to gaslighting. Forcing yourself into a state of extreme optimism can manifest itself into a habit of ignoring, downplaying, and dismissing negative emotions in future situations, which becomes a domino effect. Once you begin dismissing any negative feelings that may surface, you’re also dismissing the ability to face those difficult emotions, which could stunt personal growth and stronger resilience.
Besides training ourselves to diminish our not-so-positive emotions, engaging in toxic positivity can impact our mental health, overall wellbeing, and relationships in several other ways. Medical Today notes that toxic positivity can wreak havoc on communication and problem-solving in relationships, and lead to low self-esteem and the tendency to undermine any real harm.
HOW CAN I DIFFERENTIATE TOXIC POSITIVITY FROM REGULAR POSITIVITY?
Toxic positivity can appear in several different forms, both on a personal and interpersonal level.
Forcing yourself into a state of extreme optimism can manifest itself into a habit of ignoring, downplaying, and dismissing negative emotions in future situations
Picture this: You’ve just come home after a bad day, and you decide to reach out to a friend or family member to talk to them about what happened and how you’re feeling. After you’ve poured your heart out, you’re met with a pat on the knee and a smile, and then you hear the words, “You need to look on the bright side of things. After all, you could have it so much worse!”
This is a classic example of toxic positivity that you may have experienced at some point in your life. Although a friend or a family member has good intentions, hearing them say phrases such as “stay positive,” or “it could be worse,” can actually do more harm than good. These phrases come off as shaming and dismissive, and they “invalidate heavy emotions, leaving us feeling alone and isolated,” according to licensed psychologist Dr. Allison Davis.
I’ve come to realize that I have had the habit of saying these kinds of phrases to loved ones thinking that I was being supportive. So, if you’ve come to realize that you, too, do this sometimes, don’t feel bad! There are plenty of other things you can say to a loved one who might be going through a difficult time to let them know that you’re there to support them, such as, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or, “I’m sorry that you’re going through this, but I’m here for you and I’m listening.”
Toxic positivity can be self-imposed. If you’ve ever found yourself:
Feeling guilty or ashamed for your emotions
Brushing off and refusing to experience any emotion that you don’t think is positive
Masking your true emotions
Then you’ve been stuck in a toxic-positivity cycle with yourself, too.
WAIT, IS GRATITUDE CONSIDERED A FORM OF “TOXIC POSITIVITY”?
To put it simply: no, gratitude is not synonymous with toxic positivity.
No, gratitude is not synonymous with toxic positivity.
According to the self-improvement website The Emotion Machine, we as humans “rarely experience one singular emotion, but rather a cocktail of different emotions at the same time”. So, feeling sad yet grateful about a situation is certainly possible because gratitude can coexist alongside other feelings! For example, you can feel unhappy about your vacation coming to an end, but at the same time, you can feel grateful and appreciative of the memories that you made on the trip.
This is where toxic positivity and gratitude differ. As previously mentioned, what makes toxic positivity toxic is that it encourages the act of ignoring and dismissing any “negative” emotions someone may be feeling. But, suppressing emotions can be detrimental to both your mental and physical wellbeing; according to TIME, anxiety, depression, headaches and even heart disease can all stem from suppressing one’s feelings.
HOW CAN I AVOID TOXIC POSITIVITY?
The good news is that there are several ways in which you can avoid engaging in toxic positivity. Health websites like Healthline and Medical Today outline multiple different strategies that you can implement in your own life, some of which are:
Recognizing your negative emotions as a completely normal and crucial part of the human experience
Remembering that your feelings can coexist
Identifying your emotions instead of trying to mask them
Trying to avoid having a positive response on-hand whenever someone is venting to you — listening to them and validating their feelings is supportive already
In no way, shape, or form is this article an attempt at “canceling” positivity. Positivity is a wonderful thing to have in life that can provide you with a multitude of benefits, from lower levels of stress to an increased lifespan, and more! Maintaining a positive mindset during a difficult time can be tremendously beneficial — just as long as you aren’t forcing yourself to suppress your emotions.