Have you ever shared a difficult experience with someone only to be met with a comment like ‘just stay positive’ or ‘think happy thoughts’? These remarks are examples of toxic positivity, which is essentially the denial of emotions that are considered negative or painful.
Toxic positivity is embedded everywhere in our society, making us feel as though we have to maintain a positive mindset in any circumstance and we must be wrong if we are experiencing ‘negative’ emotions such as grief, sadness or anxiety. There are many negative implications on toxic positivity for our mental health and our relationships with others.
Toxic Positivity is Harmful to Our Well-Being
Toxic positivity functions as an avoidant coping skill so we do not have to confront uncomfortable emotions. While holding onto positivity might seem preferable to facing painful feelings, it can be extremely damaging. Refusing to acknowledge our feelings has the potential to create internalized psychological stress over time.
One study found that avoiding or suppressing our emotions can cause anxiety, depression and decreased mental health overall. (For more information about various mental health disorders, click here).
We miss out on a lot when we numb emotions that we consider to be negative or undesirable. Our emotions provide valuable insight into our values and needs. There is so much learning and growth that can happen when we allow the full range of our human emotions to be present.
When we push down unpleasant feelings, we deny ourselves the opportunity to access crucial information about ourselves and potential changes we could make in our lives. Experts discuss the importance of holding both positive and negative emotions for a meaningful life.
The Impact of Toxic Positivity on our Relationships
Toxic positivity also can be harmful in our relationships with others. When a friend or family member comes to us during a difficult time, suggesting they simply shift their perspective or ‘look on the bright side’ sends a message that the pain they are experiencing is wrong.
Responding in a way that overemphasizes positivity in the face of suffering can be shaming, and shut down any space for our loved ones to express themselves authentically to us. We tend to respond with these toxic messages because we feel uncomfortable with others’ pain, potentially because we have not yet allowed ourselves to meet our own uncomfortable emotions.
Let’s discuss some ways in which we can avoid toxic positivity and move towards embracing the full range of human emotions in ourselves and others.
4 Tips for Combating Toxic Positivity
1. Let yourself feel all of your feelings. Instead of automatically dismissing or shutting down challenging feelings, allow yourself the room to sit with all of your emotions whatever they may be. Be open to what your emotions may be showing you about yourself, your values or an unmet need.
2. Practice accurately identifying and labeling your emotions. Research has shown that putting words to our feelings reduces the intensity of the pain we feel. Work on pinpointing your emotions as they emerge and describing them in detail. You may find it helpful to write how you are feeling in a journal or process with a trusted friend or therapist.
3. Acknowledge the presence of ‘both and’. It is important to recognize that two contrasting emotions can be held simultaneously. For example, you can experience both frustration with your job and gratitude for being employed. It does not have to be either or.
4. Encourage the emotional expression of others. Provide a safe space for others to share openly about their emotional experience without judgment. Instead of offering a positive re-frame which may be perceived as dismissive, just be there to listen and validate their feelings.
Trade positive platitudes for supportive comments such as ‘I hear you’, ‘That must be really difficult’ and ‘I’m here for you.’ Let them know that anger, grief, anxiety and sadness are normal parts of the human experience and there is space for them to be seen in whatever they may be going through.