“Don’t worry, be happy.”
“Look on bright side!”
“Things could be so much worse”
“You should be more grateful!”
You may recognize these catchy phrases and common hashtags that are used in social media posts and sometimes, in real life. On the surface, these uplifting sayings can come across as well-meaning and sympathetic.
But, are they actually helpful? Or in the process of promoting “good vibes” and “positivity”, have we been unintentionally fostering a toxic and unhelpful environment?
In this blog post, I’m going to go over the concept of toxic positivity (trust me, it’s a thing), why it’s unhelpful, and how to avoid it.
Toxic Positivity – Yes, It’s A Real Thing
Let’s start with a definition – according to The Psychology Group, “toxic positivity is the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
In other words, too much positivity is not a good thing. When positive emotions, “vibes” and words begin to overshadow and suppress other, less positive emotions, this can be problematic.
You may be thinking, “well, I just try to be more positive and see the good in things, what’s wrong with that?”. And really, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to be more positive in our day-to-day lives. Negativity can be draining, and sometimes, changing your perspective to focus on the good in a crappy situation can be helpful.
Let’s also not forget that a global pandemic is our current reality and we’re also going through a societal reckoning based on racial inequality and injustice. Things are pretty stressful right now, to say the least. So, what’s wrong with a little positivity?
The thing is, positivity can become unhealthy when we start to ignore and block out less positive emotions, and subconsciously share this way of thinking with those around us.
For example, how many times have we heard or told other people “look on the bright side!” when experiencing a tough situation. Sure, it can be helpful at times, but why are we so afraid of the dark side, so to speak? What’s wrong with being a little negative?
And lets be real, that friend who is ALWAYS positive, can get kinda annoying at times. Some days, it just feels too exhausting to ''be positive''.
How Did We Get Here?
All of this begs the question - when exactly did “positivity” become the status quo? Why is everyone so obsessed with being happy all the time? UGH
It may seem like an odd question. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy? If we were always negative, life could become very unpleasant and pretty miserable. And no one wants to feel that way.
So yeah positivity is great, but if you think about it, the expectation of constant, unmitigated happiness isn’t very realistic. So why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to feel this way?
One big factor is social media, and our societal obsession with putting on a positive front at all times. Social media has made it exponentially easier for us to filter our lives. All the negative, hard stuff is removed and we’re left with a glossy, positive finish.
This leads to unrealistic expectations. When you see that everyone you’re following on Instagram has a seemingly perfect life, anytime you experience something less than perfect, you’re going to feel like you’re going to feel alone and isolated. When in reality, we all go through tough situations.
But the problem is, positivity sells. No one wants to read a blog post entitled “10 Ways You Can Be More Miserable”. Instead you’ll see posts like “10 Ways To Be Happier Right Now". Everyone wants to be more positive, with the belief that being “positive” will lead to more “positive” emotions and outcomes.
But in the effort to be more positive, we may lose other valuable emotions that help us process the challenges we experience on a daily basis. Ultimately, this can negatively affect both our mental and physical health.
Why “Good Vibes Only” Isn’t Good For Your Mental Health
If we look at it another way, toxic positivity is a defence mechanism. As humans, we don’t want to be unhappy. To avoid all “bad” emotions and “bad” experiences, we put up a wall of positivity as protection. We fear negativity.
But we need these so-called “bad” emotions. The more you ignore them, the more ominous they become. Negative emotions aren’t inherently bad, and ignoring them isn’t helpful either.
Our emotions give us information about ourselves and the way we feel in different situations. They offer us clues on what we need to change to feel better. When we share our feelings with others, it gives them information on how to help us or just lend an ear to listen to us. All of this information is important.
Additionally, suppressing our emotions can be very harmful to both our physical and mental health. Research has found that tamping down on your emotions and not expressing them can lead to a wide variety of physiological symptoms, such as hypertension, headaches, chronic pain and increased stress. Furthermore, long-term emotional suppression can even lead to a greater risk of mortality.
Research also tell us that it’s not necessarily helpful to tell other people that they need to be more positive. When people believe that others expect them not to feel negative emotions, they end up experiencing more negative emotions and reduced well-being more frequently and intensely.
One study found that when we react to negative emotions with self-criticism, we end up experiencing more stress in addition to these emotions. On the other hand, if we accept our negative emotions, we end up experiencing less negative emotions over time, leading to better psychological well-being and greater emotional resilience.
It sounds counterintuitive – how can thinking about negative stuff make you feel less negative in the future? Being mindful of your negative emotions, without judging them or labeling them as good or bad, can help you build your emotional resilience.
So the next time you go through a tough situation and experience challenging emotions, you will be able to adapt to the challenge more effectively and "roll with the punches".
The first step to manage our fear - so how do we get over our fear of negative emotions?
There Are No “Good” Or “Bad” Emotions
The first step is recognizing that there is no such thing as good or bad emotions. Our emotions provide us feedback to help us better understand what we need in a specific situation.
Sadness, anger, fear – these are some common emotions you may identify as “bad”. But instead of labeling and suppressing these emotions, what if you tried to understand them?
For example, if you’re angry and irritated every time you start your work day, this can lead to a lot of stress. However, you may not like feeling this way, so you try block these emotions and focus on getting through the day.
Instead, why not find out why you’re feeling angry and irritated? What’s the reason behind your emotions? What are they trying to tell you?
The key is remember that we all need balance in our lives. To experience the “good” emotions – like happiness, love and joy – we need to experience some of the “bad” stuff as well. It comes with the territory.
You’re allowed and capable of feeling multiple emotions at the same time. Allowing yourself to be flexible with your emotions, you may feel surprised at your strength and resilience.
How You Can Avoid Toxic Positivity
So after going through the background of toxic positivity and why it’s bad for us, now what? How do we all start being more real and authentic with our emotions?
First and foremost, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself. Seems pretty basic, but when is the last you time you expressed real, unfiltered honesty towards yourself? When’s the last time you accepted how bad you were feeling, without feeling guilty or denying those tough emotions?
Social media also plays a huge role in the perpetuation of toxic positivity.
So if you find yourself being influenced by what you’re seeing on your feed, it may be a sign that a little clean-up is in order. Explore and establish boundaries for what you want to see in order to experience positivity in a balanced and healthy way.
Next, we also need to recognize how we may be perpetuating toxic positivity towards the people around us. I know it can be difficult to figure out how to help a friend or loved one in a tough situation. And sometimes, we rely on positivity in the hopes of supporting them.
But as we’ve discussed, it’s okay to not be positive in difficult situations. There are times when you just have to go through the rough emotions. In those cases, the best way you can support your loved ones is by listening and being there. This can look like bringing some food and sitting with your loved one.
It sounds pretty simple and straightforward, but really listening can be a little hard sometimes. Try it out: the next time a friend shares that they’re going through a tough time, listen to them.
Give them space to express all their emotions, empathize with them and express your support as they work through their problems. Be mindful of your need to jump in to help ''fix'' the problem.
People don’t always need advice. Sometimes all they really need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.
Trade Out These 8 Common Toxic Phrases For More Validating Statements
If you find yourself relying on some common toxic phrases, trade them out for more accepting and non-judgemental statements.
To wrap it all up, we need to put things into perspective.
I don’t need to remind you that we’re living in stressful and precarious times. Nowadays, toxic positivity isn’t going to manifest itself as “good vibes only” memes.
It can also be the forceful expectation that we should all be doing something meaningful and valuable with our time right now. It can also be the idea that everyone should be spreading positive energy and love and light, all the time.
There’s nothing wrong with those things. But the fact is, we’re all different. We all experience and process stressful events differently.
We’re all doing our best right now, and that’s what we need to remember. Take it day by day. Be kind to yourself and those around you. Show compassion for all kinds emotions. Give yourself space to be angry, sad, happy, and confused.
It can be difficult to extract yourself from patterns of toxic positivity, so remember to be kind as your unlearn and re-learn what it means to have balanced emotions.
Until next time,