Have you ever experienced these situations before? You lose your job, you fight with your partner, or you experience a personal problem that leaves you feeling terrible, and instead of receiving a chance to vent, a friend tells you to “get over it”, “stay strong”, or “raise your vibes”. Sadly, these attempts to provide comfort are known as toxic positivity. It may seem like a play on words. After all, how can something cheery and uplifting like positivity be toxic? But even positivity can take a dark turn when it minimizes real feelings. Let’s dive in to learn what it is and how to avoid it.
What Is ‘Toxic Positivity’?
Toxic positivity is the assumption that you should always maintain a positive mindset regardless of how difficult life can get. It pushes a “positive vibes only” approach, and authentic human experiences like pain, anger, stress, and frustration are all replaced with fake happiness.
And while there are certainly upsides to a cheerful approach, toxic positivity minimizes, shames, and delegitimizes any “negative emotions” that need to be addressed and felt rather than pushed to the side.
4 Common Examples of Toxic Positivity
This forced positivity is sneaky and takes many forms.
- Get over it. When you tell someone to toughen up, put on a brave face, or get over it, you’re dismissing how they feel.
- Stay positive. Statements to look for the bright side and stay positive invalidate the emotions of others and cause someone to bottle up their feelings rather than releasing them and receiving a chance to feel better.
- Be grateful. Telling people to be grateful and focus on the good things in their lives doesn’t acknowledge their pain.
- Everything happens for a reason. While some believe this statement delivers comfort following grief, it is a red flag that shuts down someone’s opportunity to disclose their pain and receive empathy.
4 Dangers of Toxic Positivity
Whether it’s a friend that ignores your pain and tells you to be happy or a comment that says “happiness is a choice”, toxic positivity can be harmful to yourself and to others.
- It damages relationships. You can’t build authentic relationships based on forced positivity. When people turn to you for support and you minimize negative emotions, it creates fear, shame, and guilt.
- It’s an unhealthy form of coping. When you focus on avoiding or dismissing your feelings, it can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, to name a few.
- It prevents growth. All emotions, good or bad, give us important information to grow and improve. Toxic positivity robs us of experiencing unpleasant feelings that help us gain insight and make decisions that lead to growth.
- It increases mental health stigma. When denied opportunities to vent, it can lead to further distress, including avoiding treatment in fear of feeling abnormal or different.
8 Signs of Toxic Positivity
Unfortunately, toxic positivity isn’t always obvious. It can be quite subtle and hard to recognize until after the fact. But there are a few tell-tell signs to keep an eye out for so you know how to avoid it to help others and yourself;
- Feeling guilty or shameful for experiencing negative emotions
- Putting on a poker face to hide how you truly feel
- Pushing things to the side instead of acknowledging how you feel
- Avoiding conflict in fear of “bringing bad energy or vibes”
- Providing perspective (“It could be worse”) instead of empathy and validation
- Maintaining a cold front towards painful emotions experienced yourself or by others
- Delegitimizing, shaming, or minimizing others when they don’t have a positive attitude
- Telling people to “get over it and be happy” because their pain makes you uncomfortable
8 Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity
1. Acknowledge your feelings
How do you cope with a stressful life event? If your go-to is to avoid the discomfort, you may be internalizing toxic positivity. When you’re upset, try to acknowledge how you feel, either by sitting with it, venting to a friend, or journaling. Journaling is a great tool to help you identify, register, and understand the good and bad in your life. It will help you build your self-awareness by reflecting on examples of how you treated yourself and friends experiencing a difficult moment.
2. It’s okay not to be okay
A part of learning how to avoid toxic positivity is accepting the truth that it’s okay not to be okay. As humans, we can’t choose the emotions we want to have and ignore the rest. We can try, but it will make things worse. Instead, we need to feel the complete spectrum of emotions, the good and the bad. When you’re overwhelmed or upset, remove the guilt and give yourself permission to rest, care for yourself, and feel your feelings.
If you have a friend whose go-to statement is “Just be positive” every time you’re sad, it might be worth communicating how this upsets you. Expressing your feelings and needs can provide a much-needed release of stress, will help you strengthen your boundaries, and improve your relationships with yourself and those around you.
4. Advice or vent
Asking this one simple question, “Do you want advice or do you want to vent?” can be a real turning point in your relationships. It provides the foundation for someone to communicate their boundaries and for you to acknowledge the feelings of others.
5. Monitor your content
Social media is smoke and mirrors and does not paint genuine human experiences. Indeed, people rarely post their setbacks, failures, or flaws and instead stick to the highlight reel. To protect yourself from online toxic positivity, pay attention to how you feel after interacting with accounts. If you feel upset, ashamed, or guilty after scrolling, consider unfollowing or limiting your social media usage.
6. Practice removing the poker face
Hiding your feelings will only make things worse. Instead, practice aligning your mood with your attitude. If you feel upset because you got fired from a job, don’t force a smile to please others. You have every right to feel angry and sad – these are all valid feelings that need time to pass.
7. Provide empathy
Focus on providing empathy when others come to you with a problem rather than shutting them down with forced positive statements. Remind them that you’re here to listen and that their feelings matter to you. Even if they don’t respond or behave how you would, practicing this exchange will not only strengthen your relationships but will teach you how to shower yourself with the same love.
8. Remove expectations
When you’re dealing with a stressful life moment, it’s okay to have a good cry and feel upset. Try to remove the expectation you should feel a certain way. Feelings are complex, and you may feel one or several at once. For example, you can feel upset about a situation and still be hopeful for a better outcome.
Lastly, we all have different levels of resilience and need time to acknowledge our pain. By learning how to recognize toxic positivity, you’ll be more equipped to give and receive support when you or a loved one is experiencing a challenging moment.
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