Toxic Positivity - Why Is The Phrase “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” Not Helpful?
What is toxic positivity?
According to journalist Kiran Sidhu toxic positivity is a "pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one's circumstance is", which may prevent emotional coping by feeling otherwise natural emotions . Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything have to be avoided. Even in response to events that normally would evoke sadness, such as loss or hardships, positivity is encouraged as a means to cope but tends to overlook and dismiss true expression .
It is important to make a disclaimer here: most people do not choose how their psyche reacts to different events. These reactions largely depend on both the individual's history and external circumstances - for example, a sense of security affects the intensity of anger and the degree of its severity.
Student life is full of stress and problems. This is the first "adult" challenge in the life of recent teenagers. A positive attitude helps people cope with difficulties. In student life, such difficulties can be considered a failed exam or an overdue deadline, or a slight problem in communication with a teacher and classmates. But there are situations in which the search for positivity may not be the best response to what is happening in reality: in really stressful situations, it is important to be able to worry, get angry and reflect.
We encounter toxic positivity both within ourselves when we suppress any negative emotions, including sadness and aggression, and from other people when we are told to “think positively”, “it could be worse”, “just smile more often”, “you’ll pass the exam next time”.
The reason for this is simple: in modern society, optimism is recognized as a blessing, and pessimism is criticized. It seems to us that the ability to overcome negative emotions in oneself is a trait of a strong personality. But constantly pretending that everything is fine when it really isn't is ultimately taking its toll on our mental health.
Toxic positivity is a mixture of boundary violations and primitive black-and-white divisions, as well as a twisted paradigm of positive psychology. In reality, it does not get rid of bad thoughts, but accumulates them, especially if the situation is confusing and complex, and it needs to be solved with the help of a specialist.
Some examples of toxic positivity:
- Avoiding problems by fearing negative emotions instead of solving them.
- Feeling guilty if you feel sad, hurt, or angry.
- Hiding your true feelings behind pleasant responses that seem more socially acceptable.
- Hiding or hating how you really feel.
- Downplaying the feelings of other people if they make you uncomfortable.
- Shaming other people if they don't project positivity.
- Trying to be resilient and overcome painful emotions on your own.
Radiating positivity seems attractive because it makes people seem more adjusted, creates the illusion that they have everything under control, and, as a result, makes them more popular with their peers. Therefore, there are many reasons why people want to appear or be positive, which fits perfectly into the fake it till you make it approach.
Toxic positivity vs. healthy positivity
Non-toxic positivity takes into account the state of the interlocutor. In other words, healthy optimism is empathic with oneself and others. A person will not respond in the same way to different situations and different emotions.
You need to legalize the pain, which means recognizing it and letting you “get sick” without judgment. You may have seen scenes in movies where the main character, who has failed, is told: "Cry it out, and it will be easier". You need to go through this step of accepting your feelings in order to adjust to constructive thinking and the search for a solution.
Encouraging and sending positive pictures is also normal - not instead, but along with real support, empathy, and a willingness to share his condition with a loved one.
Why is toxic positivity so dangerous for human beings?
Judging oneself for feelings of pain, sadness, and jealousy, which are part of the human experience and transient emotions, leads to what is called secondary emotions such as shame and chronic guilt. They are much stronger and harder to reverse. In other words, we feel bad because we feel bad, and we get into a vicious circle.
Scientific observations show that accepting rather than avoiding and ignoring unpleasant emotions benefits a person's mental health in the long term. A recent 2018 Australian study tested the relationship between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults and found that people who avoided acknowledging difficult emotions eventually worsened and could lead to depression and apathy .
By allowing us to avoid sensations that can be painful, it deprives us of the opportunity to work through and deal with difficult feelings, which ultimately leads to the development and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.
Also, deep human relationships that satisfy our needs for friendship and understanding cannot be based on toxic positivity. We truly connect with other people only when we experience the full range of emotions together and find ways out of the crisis.
Toxic positivity is aimed primarily at satisfying the needs of the person who radiates this positivity. It is difficult to be positive, but you can ruin relationships and deliver unpleasant emotions to the interlocutor.
Whether something is toxic or non-toxic depends on how appropriate it is in the conversation and how much the needs of the other person are taken into account. It's great if someone who radiates toxic positivity can satisfy the interlocutor's need for comfort or support. But the opposite can happen, and this will only aggravate his condition. For example, if a person was angry, and after your positive argument becomes angry three times more, he has every right to be.
How to be positive but non-toxic?
Emotions should not be divided into "bad" and "good". They are inherent in us by nature to help us navigate life, find the meaning of things and make decisions. For example, if you are worried about criticism at work, then the opinion of the team and your professional development in the company are important to you. Sensitivity and attentiveness to oneself, as well as professional support from a psychologist, help to understand the meaning of emotions.
Be realistic about your feelings
When you face a stressful situation, it is normal to feel stressed, anxious, and even fearful. Don't expect too much from yourself. Focus on taking care of yourself and taking steps to improve the situation.
An incomprehensible tangle of emotions is also normal
In our psyche, worries about the future may well coexist with the belief that everything will work out. Our emotions are as complex as life itself.
Learn to listen
If someone shares difficult emotions, don't block them with venomous platitudes. Ask how the person really feels and what could support him at a particular moment. Often he himself will tell you what is effective for him and what is toxic.
What to do with toxic friends and relatives?
Often, toxic positivity is not because other people are trying to ignore your emotions on purpose, but because they are used to blocking out their own. If you are experiencing toxic positivity, you can respond with something like, “I can see that you are trying to cheer me up, but I’m having a hard time right now and would be much more supportive if you could come and spend time with me or just listen to me on the phone".
The main thing is to give a positive color to your feedback - to answer without anger and resentment, but in order to preserve your relationship.
Why do people succumb to toxic positivity?
In times like these, it is important to keep hope and your everyday "small" things, personal values, hobbies, rituals, plans, and desires . People who exude toxic positivity don't really wish you anything bad. Most likely, they just need hope, like all of us, but at the same time, they have difficulty building boundaries and living emotions. If you don't want to become such a person accidentally, you should often ask yourself how appropriate it is now to say this or that “inspiring” thing to another. This, by the way, can be asked directly. When nerves are straight to the last limits, it is necessary. And not only for those who radiate this positive.
- Bastian B, Kuppens P, Hornsey MJ, Park J, Koval P, Uchida Y. Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion. 2012 Feb;12(1):69-80. doi: 10.1037/a0024755. Epub 2011 Jul 25. PMID: 21787076.
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- Goodman, Whitney. Toxic Positivity: keeping it real in a world obsessed with being happy. Hachette UK, 2022