Toxic positivity can lead you to ignore your feelings and pretend that you're okay when you're not. Here's how to recognise the signs.
It can be hard to have honest conversations about mental health. There’s no easy starting place, let alone instructions for what to say, or how to comfort someone who is struggling with anxiety or depression. Although our hearts may be in the right place, our own discomfort when confronted with difficult situations or raw emotions can sometimes cause us to say something that hurts more than it helps, like “look on the bright side” or “it could be worse.” Too often we think we should offer a solution, when really all the other person needs is someone to listen. Although positive thinking can be helpful, toxic positivity is the obsessive urge to be happy in all situations, at all times. It leads to ignoring your feelings and pretending you’re okay when you’re not, and encouraging others to do the same, and can be exacerbated by the “good vibes only” attitude on social media.
Toxic positivity: how does it hurt?
1. Invalidates emotions
Toxic positivity nullifies the presence of difficult emotions, such as sadness, grief, or anger. It can cause you to disregard these feelings and instead believe that your emotions, as well as your state of mind, is simply an overreaction. Just because something much worse could have happened – but didn’t – doesn’t mean that it’s unreasonable to be sad or angry. A situation can still be bad, even if it could have been worse. And you can still be upset about it. But the admonishment – even if helpfully meant – that “it could have been worse” instead sends the message that feelings of sadness or anger in reaction are unacceptable and illegitimate. If someone feels sad, let them express it and be willing to listen with an open heart.
2. Generates a culture of victim shaming
Not being listened to when you are angry or sad can often lead to feelings of shame and that it’s “all in your head.” Rather than accepting feelings of sadness and anger, you instead begin to believe that they are “bad” feelings and “bad” behaviours, and that is your fault for feeling anxious or depressed. In the struggle to meet the social pressure of “good vibes only”, the victim of toxic positivity ends up suppressing their genuine emotions and doubting their self worth.
3. Perpetuates feeling guilty
After shame, comes guilt. When you experience toxic positivity, it not only triggers the development of low self-esteem but also creates anxiety. Now you feel bad about feeling bad because you must feel bad because you’re a bad person; which must be why you can’t just cheer up and look on the bright side. Sound familiar? Although the encouragement may be well intended, it is damaging to be told to “cheer up” by friends and family before your body, heart and mind are ready. The pressure to be positive at all times can make you feel – both physically and mentally – like a failure if you are unable to do so.
The solution to toxic positivity: listening to empathise
Life is full of negative and positive experiences, and everything in between. There will be times when you will be ecstatic and feel as if you are on top of the world. But there will also be times when you will be down in the dumps and heartbroken. To be hopeful about tomorrow does not mean that you can not be sad today. Bottling up painful emotions in the name of positivity will not do you any good. Choose to accept how you feel regardless of how others want you to feel.
The best way to stop toxic positivity is to replace it with a mindful practice of listening. When you listen, you pay attention. You communicate with empathy. You do not judge, negate or impose your own opinions or feelings. You just seek to share the other person’s emotional state and offer reassurance that it’s okay to feel for them to feel the way they do. The next time someone seems upset, moody, sad or exhibits distress, don’t rush in with a “cheer up” but instead try saying “I understand why you feel that way, it makes sense that you are upset.” Trust me, your words will make all the difference.