We live in a world that teaches us to look at the glass half full.
As a consequence, in times of great stress and uncertainty, like the world created by COVID-19, we all have told ourselves or others to “stay positive “ and that “it will soon pass”. No matter what, we say to “suck it up” and that “it could be worse” so we “should be grateful” for what we have. Normal, right?
As with anything in life, excess can be harmful, even when it’s an unrestrained abundance of “good vibes”. Toxic positivity is defined as “an excessively bright outlook on life that minimises and invalidates any emotional experience outside of optimism.”
Effects of Toxic Positivity
Although your positive encouragement may be said with good intentions, it can actually harm people going through difficult and challenging time. Instead of the support they need, they find their feelings dismissed and ignored, often completely invalidated. Unconsciously, we can even subject ourselves to this treatment.
Toxic positivity can cause:
- A sense of shame. No one wants to feel like a burden for others, and toxic positivity tells people that their negative emotions and feelings are wrong and a load their family and friends don’t want to help carry.
- Suppressed emotions. Toxic positivity is the perfect avoidance mechanism through which one can steer clear from uncomfortable emotional situations. Over time, you keep internalizing these ideas and suppressing any negative feeling, creating a dangerous ticking bomb.
- Isolation. Excessive positivity puts us out of touch with our actual emotions and makes it harder for us to connect on a human level with others. What are you comfortable with sharing on a deeper and more meaningful level?
Identifying Toxic Positivity
As mentioned, toxic positivity is often used subconsciously and thus can be hard to identify. However, there are some signs you can look out for:
- Feeling shameful and hiding how you really feel
- Feeling guilty, sad or angry for not being able to be positive
- Forcing a positive perspective on others instead of accepting their current emotional experience (e.g. “look at the good side”)
- Avoiding or minimising others’ negative experiences because they make you feel uncomfortable
- Shaming yourself or others for expressing frustration or negativity
- Suppressing emotions and problems by minimising them or enforcing a “suck it up” attitude.
So how do you fix it?
You can break the toxic positivity cycle and develop a more supportive and healthier approach to negative emotions with one of the following ideas:
- It’s okay not to feel okay. Do not let your negative emotions overwhelm you, but don’t deny them. They can provide you with important information on what you should change in your life. What is it that causes you to feel this way?
- Have realistic expectations. If you are having a bad day or facing a stressful situation, it is normal to feel upset or worried. Identify self-care strategies that can help you feel better in those moments, don’t bottle the feelings inside.
- Any emotional mix is valid. Humans are complex beings, so it’s normal to feel conflicting emotions at once. A positive situation, like the birth of a child, can spur excitement and joy, but also fear. A stressful presentation can make us feel nervous, but also hopeful for a possible outcome.
- Sometimes there is nothing to say. When someone is facing great hardship, the best response could be at times to simply listen and be there for them. You can also let them know that their feelings are valid and expected.