What is Toxic Positivity? And Why It Matters.

toxic positivity

Chances are good that you’ve experienced toxic positivity – either delivered to you by a well-meaning person or, you unintentionally doling it out to others. And while it can be easily misconstrued, it’s important to understand what toxic positivity actually is.

Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. It’s the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.

But, while having a positive mindset is important, toxic positivity can actually silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.

“Toxic positivity is positivity given in the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time,” says David Kessler, a grief expert and the author of six books about grief, including his latest, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”

Positive Thinking vs. Toxic Positivity

Certainly, there are benefits to being optimistic and engaging in positive thinking. However, when it shifts to toxic positivity there is an underlying inclination of rejecting negative emotions.  Toxic positivity overgeneralizes positive thinking and in turn, denies human emotions that aren’t rooted in happiness. It’s understandable to look for a silver lining, but, as a coping strategy, it can backfire.

The problem is that while some emotions may be unhappy or unpleasant, they need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly.  And, while, toxic positivity is often well-intentioned it can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.

What’s more, positive thinking can become harmful when it’s insincere or delegitimizes real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness or hardship.

Give Me An Example

More and more, toxic positivity is a term frequenting the internet, and it’s one that resonated when I first encountered it.  During a particularly sad time of grief, I became hyper-aware of comments I was receiving from well-wishers that didn’t make me feel better.  In fact, several of them inadvertently brushed away the impact of my experience. There were a lot of “I’m sorry but at least she isn’t suffering anymore…..” and “you weren’t that close, were you?”

This is not about shaming or blaming because honestly, I’m 100% certain I’ve said more than my share of inappropriate but well-intentioned things to people.  We aren’t bad people because we say these things but most likely get caught in the throes of misguided attempts at being supportive. Toxic positivity often happens because people simply don’t know what to say.  They get anxious and nervous trying to figure out how to comfort you, so they end up shutting down your feelings to end the uncomfortable conversation sooner.

Nonetheless, this is about awareness so you may recognize how toxic positivity really comes across in these statements.

Look at the bright side.

Just stay positive.

At least she isn’t suffering anymore.

It could be worse.

At least it wasn’t…..

Everything happens for a reason.

We’ve all been through a lot.

Happiness is a choice.

I know exactly how you feel.

You need to move on.

You have so much to be thankful for.

Such statements may be well-intentioned but are often said to avoid the other person’s sadness or pain. It certainly doesn’t make the person delivering these platitudes a bad friend but these comments can shame people who are already dealing with difficult situations.

How to Deal with Toxic Positivity – it starts with you!

First, take it inward to a place of self-acceptance. Acknowledge how you feel, and feel all your emotions.  It’s okay to not be okay.  Most importantly, identify and name emotions rather than trying to avoid them. This may take some critical thinking skills but clarity of what emotions are rumbling within will help you to move forward.

Then – when you’re ready, move forward with small, actionable steps.  It’s truly about acknowledging your sadness or despair and then bolstering that with positive action. When I broke my leg and was faced with the challenge of yet another physical rehabilitation, I sheepishly shared with a friend that I was slipping into a bad place mentally. She encouraged me to accept the emotional and physical pain because it was okay to feel that way now, as long as I rallied and did what it was going to take to heal physically and get back on my feet. It made all the difference. I felt what I needed to feel and then got on with doing what needed to be done.

Some Other Ways to Deal with Toxic Positivity

If you encounter people who seem to expect you to get over whatever you’re dealing with, explain the function those emotions have in your life. And, explain that your sadness or anger won’t last forever because all emotions are temporary. 

No one comes at you with intention to harm so understanding how to set boundaries is your responsibility. So, get clear on your boundaries and practice how to share them with people.  You have the right to set limits, establish expectations and communicate your boundaries.  You also have the right to have your boundaries respected.

Find your tribe.  And, accept that not everyone has to be part of your inner tribe. Chances are it’s a small circle during tough times.

Repeat toxic boundary offenders may simply not understand how your sadness is manifesting itself.  Some of us are triggered by certain things and it can be presented through anger or frustration or a number of behaviours and actions.  Explaining that can foster understanding of why your reactions may differ from how others may cope.

The Impact of Social Media

We all know it.  Whether it is your network of friends or social media influencers, people generally post their best selves and what appears to be perfect lives.  These are highlight reels of contrived happiness and success.

The result is this can promote toxic positivity and leave you feeling ‘less than’.  From there, the spiral can take you to a place of loneliness, shame and embarrassment.

Indeed, social media often has a reputation for being bad for your mental health, but it’s really about how you choose to use it.  Or not use it.  We all know the solution.  Control your intake of every kind of news and media. Delete, unlike and unfollow.

We are in this together – mostly!

I hesitate to use the term ‘we are in this together’. After all, just ask someone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one or been diagnosed with cancer. It’s lonely and a truly unique experience for each person.

But, what I mean by being in this together is that relationships are about compassionate connection and mutual respect. People who are hurting don’t need to be fixed. What they need is patient, loving witnesses. They don’t need you to make sense of things. They don’t need you to recoil or teach or enlighten. They need you to not make it about you.

They need you to overlook that during the most trying times, their expression, behavior, emotions and words may not align with how you would manage it all.  But, when the flames fade you will come together and realign.

And, although it is fine to gently encourage someone, the best policy is to choose support over unsolicited advice or outright criticism.

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