It's strange to think that something like positivity can be toxic. It's been engrained in many of us to develop a positive outlook on life, to think positive thoughts, and to encourage others to think positively when they're having negative thoughts. All of these are wonderful things! So, when does positivity become toxic to ourselves and others?
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is a type of behavior that dismantles and dismisses any notion of negativity. This means that you or someone else you know are not allowed to feel, talk about, or listen to something that could be perceived as negative.
It goes without saying that we don't enjoy being around people who consistently have a negative attitude, and we probably don't enjoy being those type of, either. But...hard things happen in life because life is hard. And those hard things deserve to be talked about, felt, heard, grieved, and understood.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Here are some real-life examples of what toxic positivity could look like:
only validating feelings and/or experiences that were positive (for yourself and/or someone else)
not allowing negative topics, phrases, or comments to be said or tolerated
believing that people who disagree with you are "haters"
believing that you only have room in your life for people who think like you do (i.e. an echo chamber)
believing you hold a higher status of information & knowledge than others
How Can We Avoid It?
Chances are that the majority of us have experienced or even participated in toxic positivity at some point. Toxic positivity is commonly found in commercial cults (multi-level marketing companies), religious cults, and churches. So, how can we avoid it?
First, it's important to understand that negative things happen to everyone, everyday. Life gives each of us our own unique set of challenges, and even if someone has gone through a similar situation as you, no one truly knows what your experience in that situation is like because every facet of that similar experience is different for each individual. Once we learn to honor that about each other, we're able to provide a greater sense of empathy toward others.
Second, reflect on your own upbringing. What did your family dynamics teach you about emotions? Were you encouraged to express emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, doubt, and grief as a child? Were you met with compassion and care when those emotions were expressed, or were you met with caregivers who tried to convince you that what you're experiencing isn't as bad as what others might be going through? When you think about experiencing those emotions as a child, how does it make you feel right now in this moment?
Third, reflect on your responses to those who have shared negative things with you and/or believe differently than you, Do you find yourself immediately trying to direct their focus on the positive things in their lives? When you're confronted by someone who is disagreeing with you, what's your reaction? Do you have the ability to remain in relationships with people who have different beliefs than you? Are you able to validate someone's experience, whether positive or negative?
Remaining self-aware gives us the ability to ask ourselves if we're using positivity to help or hurt others (or ourselves), and it helps us avoid using toxic positivity altogether. It also provides us with the opportunity to change our behavior. Self-awareness is key to ensuring that the positivity we give to ourselves and others is coming from a healthy space.
Healthy Positivity & Toxic Positivity
We have plenty of science backing the benefits of having a healthy positive mindset. When we have a positive mindset, we're actively managing our stress better, lowering our risk of depression, creating a stronger immune system, decreasing risk of heart attacks and heart disease, lowering blood pressure, and so much more!
But there's a difference between having a positive mindset and having a toxic positive mindset. Remember, toxic positivity doesn't allow room for negative thoughts, interactions, or experiences. Healthy positivity allows room. Allowing room means allowing yourself to be validated, heard, felt, and understood. When we suppress negativity, we're suppressing the truth. It's possible (and completely realistic) to have a positive mindset while also giving yourself the space to grieve, feel, cry, and express whatever you need to to be fully understood. Claudia Elsig, a medical doctor at the CALDA Clinic found a significant relationship between suppressed emotions and mental health. Suppressed emotions and experiences actually stay in the body, and the effects of that include depression, anxiety, and other stress-related illnesses, including substance abuse.
Life is all about balance, and the same is true with positivity. Having a healthy positive mindset is proven to benefit us, and the same is true for bringing awareness and compassion to what we have or had experienced that was negative. Both provide immense benefits to our mental, emotional, and physical health. And it's possible to hold them at the same time.
Hard things need to be shared with people who can help you bear the weight. Being positive all the time isn't real life.
Set aside time to journal about the positive and negative moments of your day. Audibly validate both positive and negative moments as you re-read what you wrote. If you feel comfortable, share these positive and negative moments with someone who makes you feel safe. Before sharing, communicate what you're looking for in their response: validation, acceptance, or help with solving a problem. Afterwards, journal how it made you feel to share these with your safe person. What are you feeling in your body? Where do you feel that in your body? What are those feelings telling you? In doing this, we're practicing connecting our mind to our body to allow ourselves to have a fully integrated experience in the present moment. We're teaching ourselves that we can experience the pain of negative things without it completely hijacking our nervous system. It's easy for us to feel like experiencing pain is a "bad" thing, however pain is solely just a teacher, showing us parts of ourselves that we might be scared to communicate with, express, or love. All of you deserves to be loved.
The more you allow yourself the freedom to experience life for all it has to bring, both good and bad, the more you'll be able to be fully present in your mind and your body.
We see therapy as a practice of being present with whatever authentic experiences show up. If you are interested in setting up an appointment, visit our therapists here.