I am sure you have heard generally well-meaning phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “it will all work out in the end.” I am also sure that the friend or confidant who conveyed the phrase meant well. Or perhaps you yourself uttered those words of encouragement to a struggling loved one. Believe it or not, in one way or another, we have all participated in toxic positivity culture.
Positivity or optimism are not a bad concept. In fact, it is an ideal mindset that most strive to maintain. The pursuit to become the idealized version of positive becomes problematic when there is a sense of excessive and ineffective overgeneralizations of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The very definition of toxic positivity reads: ‘the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.’
When positivity is excessively used as a blanket to cover up emotions deemed unsightly like sadness, jealousy, anger, and resentfulness –the human experience is being muted. As humans, we are flawed and prone to mistakes and raw emotions.
Contributing Factors to Toxic Positivity
Healthy functioning and though formation begin with honesty and a mindful presence in your daily life. Are you guilty of participating in toxic positivity culture? Are you aware of your tendencies? The following are two noted aspects to consider as you begin to explore whether toxic positivity plays a role in your life:
- Shame: This is a strong emotion connected to a desire to cover up a thought or the realization of fear that others might know about the self.
- Suppressed Emotions: In some of my individual therapeutic sessions, I often facilitate a ‘mask activity.’ During this exercise, I ask my client to write descriptors or feeling words on both the inside and outside of the mask. Words on the outside are meant to represent what they actively display to the people in their everyday lives. Words written inside of the mask represent how they truly feel about themselves or how they believe others perceive them. Often, the inside descriptors do not match the outside and are usually negative. When our feelings inside do not match our outsides, we deny and bury our truths. Suppressed emotions can often manifest into symptoms of anxiety, depression, or somatic sensations.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life:
- Hiding/masking your true feelings.
- Stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s).
- Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel.
- Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements.
- Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience.
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.
- Brushing off things that are bothering you.
Below are some examples of toxic positivity statements that are commonly used in everyday conversations:
- “Don’t think about it, stay positive!”
- “Don’t worry, be happy!”
- “Failure is not an option.”
- “Everything will work out in the end.”
- “Positive vibes only!”
- “If I can do it, so can you!”
- “Look for the silver lining.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “It could be worse.”
Ways to Foster Genuine Positivity
Below are some strategies to help cope with daily stressors that may cause you to revert back to toxic positivity:
- Accept negative feelings. Do not feel the need to push way feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. These feelings are perfectly normal. Avoiding difficult emotions only prolongs the inevitable work of dealing with them.
- Identify and correct cognitive thinking errors. It is normal to have negative thoughts, but it is important to become mindful of negative thinking patterns. Do you tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion in a conflict? Do you assume what others are thinking? We all make these cognitive errors, but it is important to challenge your thoughts. Is what you are thinking true? Could there be a more helpful alternative thought?
- When you do not feel heard and understood by family or friends, try to express your emotions in a constructive way. Perhaps you could journal your thoughts or find an online support group with people who are experiencing similar circumstances.
- Seek professional help if you need it. When you feel hopeless, deeply depressed, panicked or burnt out, please contact your doctor or reach out to a loved one to get you the help you need. Do not struggle on your own. It is a sign of strength to know when to ask for help.