A few months ago, my father gave me a book he found in his grandfather’s library. My great grandfather was ahead of his time; he was into spirituality, health food and meditation. When I opened this book, I understood where so much toxic positivity had come from in my family.
Being positive or focusing on positivity comes from a noble place. However, there is this sense of avoiding or dismissing the wholeness of our human experience that can come from solely focusing on the positive. What we know now is that wholeness, presence and authenticity is healthier than blanket positivity, “mind over matter” and perfectionism. We will all have experiences in our lives, they will not go away by simply staying positive.
What is toxic positivity and where did it come from?
It’s normal to feel uncomfortable when negative emotions come up. Those feelings are real and you will experience them, not just once or twice, but throughout your life.
If you continuously dismiss those negative emotions and don’t deal with them (because you think keeping a positive mindset is the solution), you might be falling into the trap of toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren’t strictly happy or positive.” (Verywellmind.com | What is Toxic Positivity? | Kendra Cherry, February 1, 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-toxic-positivity-5093958)
Toxic positivity is usually from a place of good intentions.
Sometimes people will encourage you to just stay positive because they don’t know what else to say or how to comfort you. They may say things like ‘look on the bright side’’ or ‘it could be worse’. But saying those things can lead to feelings of being dismissed or invalidated. We talk about the effects of invalidation HERE.
As topics around mindset and the popularity of the ‘good vibes only’ attitude have grown through social media, it’s become trendy to be positive at all costs, in all circumstances. Although having a positive mindset can be beneficial, it doesn’t mean that negative emotions should be dismissed and not felt. It’s okay to experience emotions that are not positive.
How can we do better? (This can be with ourselves + with others)
Our goal, for dealing with our own negative emotions and situations, should be to manage them instead of avoiding or dismissing them. Yes, It’s important to have a positive outlook on life. And, if you avoid all emotions that are not positive, you foreclose on the ability to grow and learn from the negative experiences that can truly build you into a well-rounded individual.
So we want to develop healthy, supportive ways to approach negative emotions with ourselves and with others.
“Empathy is an essential element in any relationship, and we need to meet people where they are in terms of their emotions.” (PositivePsychology.com | Toxic Positivity in Psychology: How to Avoid the Positivity Trap | Tiffany Sauber Millacci, Ph.D., April 13, 2021, https://positivepsychology.com/toxic-positivity-in-psychology/)
What are some ways you can approach a negative situation, with yourself or someone else, that do not include toxic positivity?
- Be encouraging. “Yes, this is hard, and I know you (I) can grow through this.”
- Validate. “It’s Ok that this is hard. It’s normal to feel x about y.”
- Give perspective. “This is only one part of the journey, this is the middle of the story. While I know that there is a bigger process at play, I can settle in right here, breathe and take one step at a time.”
None of these statements dismiss the negative emotions, they acknowledge them and show empathy.
It’s okay to feel your feelings because even negative emotions have a purpose. You can use them in a way that is productive to learn, grow and improve yourself.
We need a blend of compassion, patience and leadership to evolve
It’s almost second nature to say some of the toxic positivity statements when someone you love is struggling.
We have to remember that this is deeply ingrained in us and in the people in our life. These statements are coming from a caring place.
Sometimes there is also the tendency to hide or shield others from the hard emotions we have; we try to keep it all in and not burden those we love with our struggles. It’s Ok to share those emotions in the places you feel safe, so that you can receive support and feel connected. Connection helps regulate emotions and your nervous system.
But we can do better. Not only by remembering to bring presence, validation and encouragement that does not dismiss hardship, but by sharing with others when we need them to shift their way of supporting us as well.
We can say: “I really feel supported most when you acknowledge how I feel and tell me you trust me to handle the challenge” or “I really feel supported when you listen and just say: I can see how hard this is right now”.
When you give others this insight into how they can support you, and also ask them what makes them feel supported, you are building the foundation of a relationship where you effectively support each other.