Toxic Positivity: How Being All Sunshine Can Create a Terrible StormNov 29, 2022
Ah, yes. All those wonderful “happy” phrases:
“Good vibes only!”
“Life will never give you more than you can handle”
“Trust that this is God’s plan.”
“It could be worse”
“Don’t be so negative”
“Happy girls are the prettiest”
There is no denying that positivity can be powerful. Positivity can help you manage anxious thoughts and help push you through challenges by giving you extra encouragement, hope and motivation.
Positivity is such an integral part of our culture that we feel like there is something wrong with us if we challenge it. We don’t want to be labeled as bitter or a “Negative Nancy”. It makes sense, we live in a happiness obsessed culture. It’s constantly being prescribed by therapists, medical professionals and life coaches. It is a parenting goal ( that will have to be another article about how it isn’t actually healthy to want your kids to be “happy” ), the cure for your job woes, financial stress and relationship status! Just “think good and it will be good!” If only it were that simple, right?
Before I get in to this I want be clear that positivity can be a really good thing. It’s not all bad. I believe in it, I endorse it! In fact, in the right context it can be really great. Lots of experts agree that positivity can be good for our health and can even help us live longer. While some of the claims of positivity tend to be exaggerated, in general feeling positive in the right situations can be really great.
That being said, there are times when positivity is not only not helpful but harmful and inappropriate. When you (or someone else) try to put a positive spin on every situation and push yourself to constantly show “positive” emotions this is what is known as TOXIC POSITIVITY (or dismissive positivity). Feeling confused? Stick with me, and I’ll explain.
Toxic positivity says you shouldn’t have any negative feelings, ever. We have to see the good in literally everything. However, avoiding emotions only delays the inevitable; the pain will have to be dealt with in some form eventually. Toxic positivity doesn’t acknowledge or allow room for fear, pain, anger, stress, or sadness but these are all valid, HUMAN emotions.
Psychologist Dr. Allison Davis breaks down the problems of toxic positivity into these simple points:
*Toxic positivity is overly simple and emotions are anything but simple. Emotions are not neat, clean or simple.
*It doesn’t acknowledge or leave space for pain. “Happiness is a choice”- sometimes it’s not the HEALTHY choice. You NEED to grieve the loss of a loved one, you need to be angry so you leave that relationship. Emotions act as communication and motivation.
*It uses all or nothing language. “Everything happens for a reason”, “It’s all for the best.” How do we believe that about kids with terminal illness, abuse or a young parent suddenly passing away and leaving a family behind?
*Toxic positivity can seem helpful and encouraging but it is just the opposite. It is invalidating, shaming, blaming and dismissive.
*Toxic positivity becomes acceptable when it’s packaged as having unwavering faith in God, being a “super positive person” or being anti negativity.
These statements can be true for some people at some times but they can also be masking avoidance behavior. Is it possible that positivity is your default because you don’t know how or don’t want to deal with your negative feelings?
Having an optimistic outlook is wonderful and helpful but that is not to be confused with toxic positivity. Healthy positivity, also known as optimism makes space for both reality and hope. Optimism acknowledges that you can overcome challenges by working through them. Optimistic statements may sound like “This is hard but I can do hard things”, “This pain won’t last forever”, “I’m not alone, I can ask for help.” Conversely, toxic positivity doesn’t allow you to acknowledge hurt or pain at all. “Be strong.” “Think positive.” “Never question.” It is essentially denial.
The fact is that in real life there are situations that will you cause emotional or physical suffering and no amount of strength or positive thinking can change that AND you don’t have to. Often it is your allowing yourself to feel the pain that will help get you through it.
Toxic positivity can make people feel unsafe expressing their negativity and negativity thrives in isolation. It can make people think there is something wrong with them for simply not “choosing” happiness and shame is negativity’s best friend. The fact is that truly supporting people isn’t about being positive. When you force positivity on someone it can actually have the opposite effect. True support and empathy sometimes means just sitting with that person and their uncomfortable feelings.
Brene Brown has famously said “If sympathy is shouting down at someone while they are stuck in a hole, empathy is getting in to the hole with them.” If toxic positivity is telling someone to “just look on the bright side” then support is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and accepting their feelings for what they are.
We tend to feel helpless, useless, and uncomfortable when we see someone experiencing negative emotions. We instantly try to make it better. We try to fix. We confuse offering support with advice or encouragement. One reason for this is that we live in a culture that is obsessed with happiness. We are constantly bombarded by highlight reels and images of everyone “living their best life.” Positivity and happiness are things you want in your life, yes, but it’s important to recognize that you need be able to feel a variety of emotions and you can get to positivity on your own without being forced there.
The act of welcoming all feelings is called “emotional acceptance.” This is the willingness and ability to acknowledge, accept and experience negative emotions. This is a helpful practice because once you accept your emotions you are accepting the truth of your situation. Once you do this you can start to figure out what you are doing to do about it.
Also, when you accept an emotion, you give yourself the chance to learn how to manage it. When you are familiar with the feeling it becomes less scary and overwhelming. You will know that can handle it because you have been there before and you survived (like that famous quote says “You’ve survived 100% of your worst days”). Avoiding those feelings does not give you this practice. When you allow yourself to experience a negative emotion it eventually loses its power.
It is pretty powerful to realize that when you ignore or reject negative emotions you are, in a sense, rejecting parts of yourself. This blocks you from being your authentic self and maximizing your potential. When you, or someone else, is suffering it is important to acknowledge and validate their pain and then, in the right time, you can move to encouraging phrases.
There are times when stress, anger, or sadness are important communication and if you stuff it down with “positivity” that can be dangerous. You are not enabling negativity by listening to it. In fact, just the opposite. The power of empathy and validation is incredible.
Part of the reason people avoid negative emotions is because they think they are bad and wrong. They are afraid to be labeled “negative” or they believe that if they feel down that they are lacking in emunah (faith). This is totally misguided. If you can see feelings for what they are- just feelings, you can stop judging them and let go of the shame. Feelings are not facts and they don’t define you. They are just a part of the human experience. Also, having a feeling doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Notice it, acknowledge it and then decide what you want to do with it; either you will take action or just process it and move on.
I really do wish that people would stop telling those who are struggling to have faith. Why is it automatically assumed that someone needs a reminder to believe when they feel hurt, disappointed or confused about something painful in their life? Faith would tell us that ALL feelings exist for a higher purpose. We can welcome those feelings and process them. Understanding that life can be confusing and even cause us to question sometimes is part of believing. It is a part of living. Even the healthiest and strongest relationship will have times when it is plagued with phases of doubt and disconnect. This is healthy and normal. Our relationship with God and faith is no different.
Remember, positive people can experience negative emotions too. You are not a negative person if you feel down, angry or stressed, you are simply human. Toxic positivity shames you in to thinking that you are lacking in faith, strength or character if you experience negative emotions.
Toxic positivity tries to block, suppress or deny any heavy feelings by replacing them with happy thoughts. This comes from a place of not being able to tolerate the discomfort of your (or someone else’s) pain, sadness, and anger. We can acknowledge hurt and sadness and at the same time have faith and optimism that things will get better. You can experience two emotions (and more) at once, you don’t have to choose. Make room for all of it.
“Good vibes only”. Enough of that. All vibes are welcome. Good and bad, even at the same time.
So now that you are well versed in toxic positivity and how unhelpful it is, how can you be more supportive and helpful to someone who is suffering?
Try these helpful phrases:
“I’m so sorry for your loss”
“You are not alone”
“I’m here to listen”
“There is nothing you could have done differently”
“This doesn’t feel fair”
“I’m sorry you are suffering”
“What can I do that would be helpful?”
“That sounds terrible. I wish I could make it better.”
“I’m bringing you dinner.”
Pain doesn’t always have an answer. Sometimes there is no skill you can use to get through the hurt. Sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to feel it all. When you allow yourself to honor your full experience, you’ll often find that it is these experiences that help you uncover your strength, your most important values and needs. For more on this topic, I highly recommend the book Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman.
Feel. Deal. Heal.
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