Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful for Your Mental Health
When something bad happens, we’re often met with many do-gooders and friends encouraging us to look on the good side of life. You know - the “good vibes only” crowd.
You lose your job.
“It’s okay, look at all the other great things in your life!”
“Good stuff is coming your way soon.”
“You can now find your passion! That’s so great!”
You’re struggling with the end of a relationship...
“You deserve better anyway.”
“Just think about how great you are and they're missing out on that.”
“Think of it like a fresh start - a new and exciting era.”
Can we all just hold up for a quick second here? It’s okay to feel not okay. For real.
In fact, trying to push positive vibes onto someone who isn’t feeling at their best is really only spreading toxic positivity (yes, it can be toxic).
You may not mean to, but telling them it’s not okay to feel bad about their job loss or their current relationship flop can have the opposite effect you were hoping for. In fact, it often feels like you’re telling them it’s not okay to have negative feelings about unfavorable stuff that has happened to them.
In reality, sometimes, we all need to just sit in our feelings. It’s healthy to feel those negative emotions and go through them because suppressing them and putting on a fake smile isn’t necessarily doing you or your friend any good. So how can you make sure your message of positivty comes across as - well - positive?
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is defined as another person implying an individual struggling with emotional pain should simply look on the bright side of life, and by doing so, everything will get better.
While not entirely untrue, in a way, this approach can completely de-validate that person’s emotional struggle and pain. If anything, it may actually make them feel worse about themselves and their situation.
What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like?
Toxic positivity can take on many shapes and forms. It could be the friend who tells you that you need to look at the items in your life you appreciate more and quit focusing on that one situation causing you pain.
It could be that other friend who has been posting all the positive things they’ve managed to get done despite the chaos in the world.
It can actually bring you down more, or make you feel inadequate. It can even make you question yourself and wonder why you aren’t like these positive people. If you’re feeling this kind of way, this article is for you. Feeling negative emotions is authentic. No one feels good all the time - and if they say they do, they’re 110% faking it.
Learning to embrace negative emotions can be hard. Read more about how All Emotions Are Good Emotions here.
Get this: research even shows when you’re told not to think about something, you are more likely to think about it. So, when you’re told to quit focusing on the issues in your life, you’re going to likely fixate on it even more. This doesn’t help.
Researchers have also discovered that when you suppress your feelings, they end up causing more psychological problems and stress. No one would wish this on their friends, yet they (or you) may not realize they’re doing it.
So, let this serve as a little eye-opener for those who trample over negativity and think you just have to look on the bright side of life - it helps, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes, you need to sit in the negative and process what has happened. It’s not only healthy, but necessary to move past it.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
What should you watch out for? Are you guilty of any of these?
You might be surrounded by toxic positivity if:
- You’re hiding how you truly feel.
- You’re trying to move on and are not confronting your real emotions.
- You feel guilty about how you feel.
- You downplay other people’s emotions and experiences, filtering them out with feel-good statements or quotes.
- You tend to offer a positive perspective as opposed to compassion or empathy regarding their feelings.
- You brush off your feelings with statements like “It is what it is,” or “There’s nothing to be done about it.”
Why Toxic Positivity Doesn’t Benefit You
Raise your hand if you’re a Brene Brown fan (even if you’re not, keep reading).
The reason toxic positivity doesn’t benefit you is the shame that is attached to it. You feel guilty and ashamed of your feelings, so you hide them. Brene Brown claims that the silence, secrecy, and judgment attached to these shameful feelings only eats away at your spirit, producing further discomfort.
In other words, it doesn’t make you feel better.
As mentioned previously, suppressing your emotions only brings about more psychological stress - something that you don’t need if you’re already feeling down and out.
Eventually, you might even explode. Your feelings may come out in the worst possible ways. You behave badly. You express yourself terribly - all because you weren’t originally forthcoming with how you felt.
It also isolates you. You feel alone and like no one understands. This isn’t only detrimental to your mental health, but also your physical health.
According to research, feeling socially isolated is a predictor of mortality. This means that the more isolated you feel (which none of us need more of these days), the more likely chance you will face an early death.
It’s scary. But there are things you can do about it.
How to Avoid & Overcome Toxic Positivity
Here are some strategies for overcoming our own overly-positive tendencies to build a more accepting and loving community around us.
Listening & Affirming
We need to begin listening to each other and accepting more than just the happiest versions of the people around us.
Instead of saying, “Stay positive,” open yourself up by saying, “I’m listening. I hear you. Describe your feelings.”
Instead of saying, “Everything has a way of working out,” say “It’s tough. I’m here for you.”
You might actually just be trying to not complain, or to use gratitude to help get over a really difficult experience. But sometimes, people who are struggling just need someone to listen - not to solve the problem. They may need to sit with the emotions before they even figure out how to move past them.
If you find yourself saying yes to some of the signs that you are spreading toxic positivity, consider that you need to give the person the space to talk about the bad feelings - not paint them brightly right away.
This works both ways, when we create an environment of emotional acceptance, it allows you to be more authentic around those you love. If you’re feeling not okay, know that’s completely okay. Setting boundaries that you are not wanting positive advice, just space to vent and be heard is so important in close relationships.
Talk it out with a friend and say you need someone to talk to and you just need a friend to listen.
This may not happen overnight, you may catch yourself trying to force positivity and that’s okay. We’re all raised into this way of thinking and our society rewards it, just take small steps, check-in with yourself, and do not be afraid to apologize or correct yourself when you make a mistake. It can be as simple as, “I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to invalidate your feelings. You’re allowed to feel this way.”
Reducing Social Media Usage
In the meantime, consider also putting away social media for a while. Toxic positivity on social media is rampant, where most only show their best days, angles, and moments. Social media can have a huge impact on your mental health - one that might be hard to detect.
An example of this, presented in The Other Side of Happiness by Brock Bastian (Melbourne University’s School of Psychological Sciences) is mommy bloggers and the clean, easy, and fun ways that they present parenting. During the early years of parenting, validation, and support through difficult sleepless nights and tough days is so incredibly crucial. So the toxic way this positive life view is presented may make other mothers feel that their stress and strain are not real and that they, as a result, are a bad parent.
“It leads people to overestimate the extent to which everyone is experiencing positive experiences” - Brock Bastian
Let’s Get Off The Toxic Positivity Train
Positivity is great, but like anything, there is a place and a time. If you’re going through a rough time or you know someone that is, positivity might only breed toxic emotions and create unhealthy mental feedback loops.
Instead, be a realist and take the negative with the positive. The universe is fairly good at presenting a yin and yang type balance that comes in ebbs and flows throughout your life. Make sure to ask for what you need and clarify your feelings, "I feel awful/sad/angry right now and I just need you to listen and sit with me while I get them out."
Sometimes, you’re going to feel like crap. It’s okay. You will feel good again. It just doesn’t necessarily need to be right here and right at this very moment.
Let’s find balance in our daily lives. Read more: The Social Media Threshold: When is it Harmful?