I’m not negative. In fact, I embrace positivity and optimism and I regularly seek out ways to be grateful to encourage these. But too much positivity can be a bad thing. It can be Toxic Positivity.
During this pandemic, being honest about my struggles and documenting my emotions has been my normal. However, we’ve also seen a good amount of encouragement to “not let the pandemic get you down!”. As if on some level we are able to rise above and have no emotional attachment to the chaos of the past 2 years.
Toxic positivity means holding a perpetually positive outlook to the point that one denies their own emotions or the emotions of others. It’s a belief that no matter how painful a situation is or how difficult, an individual should maintain positivity and change their outlook to be happy or grateful.
It’s basically emotional suppression.
WHAT CAUSES TOXIC POSITIVITY?
Toxic Positivity is deeply rooted in one of 2 places:
–> Wishing we were feeling something we aren’t and being uncomfortable with those tough feelings so we admonish ourselves to feel differently.
–> External pressure to avoid negativity or pessimism and only look to “the brighter side of things”.
These two are tied together and certainly the origin of the discomfort we feel around negativity is based on the cultural tendency towards positivity.
SIGNS OF TOXIC POSITIVITY
Toxic positivity involves seeing certain emotions as “negative,” such as anger, sadness, or any other uncomfortable feeling. Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life.
- You hide or mask your true feelings and avoid talking or even thinking about uncomfortable feelings.
- Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s)
- You focus on gratitude as a way to bypass your emotions. That’s not to say gratitude is a bad thing, but it can be when you’re using it to invalidate yourself.
- You feel guilty for feeling what you feel or for feeling negativity.
- Admiring others who are always positive and aspiring to be like them.
- When bad things happen you only acknowledge the positive aspects of the situation.
- Comparing your experience to others and being self-critical when someone else is seemingly handling a tough time “better” than you.
- Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements such as “don’t think about it, stay positive” or “It could be worse”.
- Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
- Brushing off things that are bothering you with an “It is what it is” or “everything happens for a reason”. It is still important to feel and process your emotions.
WHY IS TOXIC POSITIVITY A PROBLEM?
Toxic Positivity is deeply rooted in emotional suppression and distancing of the self from what is true and real. In this light, several characteristics are common amongst people who embrace toxic positivity.
–> Lack of Authenticity
Toxic Positivity encourages us to depart from authenticity and favour the artificial – ignoring our feelings and uncomfortable emotions and not honoring our experiences. Or, putting on a mask of positivity.
This results in denial, minimization and invalidation of our human emotional experience. – we all have negative emotions such as jealousy, anger, resentment and greed. This can’t be covered up by positivity – that is an effort of futility and only serves to suppress negativity, and forces it to come out in another way.
To force a positive outlook on pain is to encourage a person to keep silent about their struggles. Suppressing our emotions is deeply rooted in shame for feeling negativity and perpetuates us feeling shame for being unable to suppress our negative emotions.
Most of us don’t want to be seen as a drag or “bad,” or to be judged for how we feel, so when the choice is between being brave and honest or pretending like everything is going great, we’re tempted to adopt the latter.
Author and researcher Brené Brown teaches in several of her books that the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy, and judgment. In other words, where there is hiding, secrets, and denial, shame is usually in the driver’s seat.
Shame is crippling to the human spirit and one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can feel. Often, we don’t even know that we are feeling shame. Ask yourself, “If they knew __________ about me, what would they think?” or “Something I wouldn’t want the world to know about me is _______________.”
If you can fill in that blank with ANYTHING, whether it be a situation, a feeling, or an experience there is a high likelihood that there is some shame around that.
–> Suppressed Emotions
Believing that you are not allowed to feel or think negatively can make you suppress emotions that are real, causing those emotions to show themselves in other ways like anxiety or depression. Stuffing negative feelings sends the message that these negative feelings are not ok to have and you need to act as though they don’t exist.
When we don’t want to show a part of ourselves, we create a fake face or public persona for the world. That face can sometimes look cheery, with a happy smile, stating, “Everything happens for a reason” or “it is what it is.”. When we go into hiding like that, we deny our truth.
The real truth is, life can hurt sometimes.
If you’re angry—and the angry feelings aren’t acknowledged—they get buried deep within our body. As described above, suppressed emotions can later manifest in anxiety, depression, or even physical illness.
It’s important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalizing them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, healthy and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Once we honor our feelings, we embrace ALL of ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly. And accepting ourselves just as we are is the path to a healthy emotional life.
–> Isolation & Other Relational Problems
In denying our truth, we begin to live inauthentically with ourselves and with the world. We lose connection with ourselves, making it difficult for others to connect and relate to us. We might look unbreakable from the outside, but on the inside we’re controlled by fear and long for connection.
How comfortable are you with spilling your guts about the deep emotions you’re feeling to that friend who never shares their own? “Looking on the bright side of things” might be shrouded in good intentions, but the message they’re sending is, “only good feelings are allowed in my presence.”. Therefore, it makes it really difficult to express anything but “good vibes” around them. Consequently, you end up complying with the implied rules of, “I can only be a certain kind of person around you, I can’t be myself.”.
The relationship with yourself is often reflected in the relationship you have with others. If you can’t be honest about your own feelings, how will you ever be able to hold space for someone else to express real feelings in your presence? By curating a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness resulting in counterfeit intimacy and superficial friendships.
–> Negative Impact on Emotional & Mental Health
Whether self-inflicted or from friends and family, toxic positivity can have a negative impact on one’s mental health in a lot of ways. For starters, it invalidates a person’s experience, which is why it’s similar to gaslighting.
It’s OK to feel sad, angry, hurt, disappointed, or any other more difficult emotion. Toxic positivity doesn’t make room for being self-compassionate or empathic and it creates obstacles to processing traumas or feelings appropriately and effectively.
Suppressing our emotions and making ourselves wrong in this way can only lead to accelerated feelings of self-judgment, heightened inner criticism and negative or lowered self-esteem.
HOW TO AVOID IT IN THE FUTURE.
If you’re finding yourself exhibiting toxic positivity the best thing you can do for yourself is to simply accept your feelings without judging them. You have a right to your emotions.
Noticing when toxic positivity is creeping in can also require some mindfulness on your part, whether you’re being that way toward yourself or others. When you find yourself avoiding or deflecting tough emotions, try to be present for them, acknowledge them, and process them.
Tangible Strategies to Minimize Toxic Positivity:
Focus on YOU: self-compassion & acceptance for yourself. Stress and pain are part of the human experience and we must come to terms with this. Coming to terms with this is allowing yourself to exoperience the negativity. You must give yourself permission to experience and process the emotions that you feel whether they are negative or positive. accepting your feelings (and the feelings of others) without judgment is what getting over toxic positivity is all about. And while it may not come easy at first, over time, those difficult emotions will feel less difficult.
Focus on others: show interest, empathy and validation. Allow the other person to express their true feelings, instead of trying to get them to see the positive. Show interest in what they’re going through, ask questions and understand where they are coming from.
- “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
- “That sounds really difficult.”
- “How are you doing?”
- “I wish I knew what to say.”
Do not dismiss their feelings as if they are wrong or unjustified. That’s a judgment call that you have no right to make.
And if you’re dealing with a friend or family member pushing toxic positivity when you’re feeling down, it’s the same idea—and it’s important to stand firm in your truth. Only you know exactly how you’re feeling, and someone telling you to “just keep your chin up” isn’t always productive or helpful.
Explaining that you want to feel the tough emotions before looking on the bright side, or want to be more OK with processing and feeling them, should get the message across.
THE BOTTOM LINE.
At the end of the day, it’s all about balance. The balance between positivity and being honest with yourself, how you’re feeling and processing those emotions even when difficult. It’s unnecessary to rush the healing before finding the lesson. Being able to stay positive in times of trouble is great and can help with resilience, but the truth is that processing and integrating tough emotions builds resilience, too.
If you’d like support understanding more about patterns of toxic positivity, let’s connect for a clarity call.
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.