Earlier today, a Facebook friend of mine complained on his feed about the posting habits of parents in the time of covid-19 (but really, this applies to most people, all the time). He pointed out that said parents were only posting stories and photos about gloriously rewarding homeschooling efforts, well-baked cookies, and successful weight loss programs.
What about all those people whose kids are viciously addicted to video games, he wanted to know, or otherwise expressing emotional disturbance in less-than-desirable, or even less-than-manageable ways? What about parents who’ve taken to self-medicating?
Following this, a whole boatload of parents with ongoing personal struggles waved their hands and said “Me! Nothing’s perfect over here, and in fact, it kinda sucks.” But they had to be asked first. The tendency to overemphasize the importance of positivity in the face of adversity predates social media, of course.
What is toxic positivity?
Don’t get me wrong: the willingness to build a generally positive outlook is surely key to leading a healthy life. But, as marriage and family therapist Samara Quintero and clinical psychologist Jamie Long put it:
Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic.
Toxic positivity refers to the dangers of only focusing on positive things and ignoring negative ones—which, unsurprisingly, ends up amplifying the latter. Put another way, toxic positivity is the belief that always staying positive and rejecting anything that might trigger negative emotions is the best way to live.
I know I’m not alone when I say that I find people who are too positive all the time very difficult to be real around—let alone be around at all. For instance, a few years ago while coping with a serious health issue, I had several friends at the time appear genuinely uncomfortable whenever I spoke about my experiences with healthcare, many of which brought up negative emotions.
Being around these friends made me feel worse, like I was somehow complaining in excess by simply sharing my experiences. Suffice it to say, I had to take some distance from them. How can anyone be themselves with people that act as though they’re personally immune to anxiety and fear?
What’s wrong with staying positive?
Personally, I don’t like to be told to “look on the bright side,” as I’m already a pretty positive person. When I express a ‘negative’ emotion, it’s because it’s near and dear to my heart and needs to be processed and released.
People prone to toxic positivity may at times also try to ‘solve’ your issues by quickly offering up several possible routes for you to exit your negative emotion(s) as soon as possible. I prefer being around people who know how to simply listen, thereby affirming another’s human experience.
When being positive comes naturally, it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s potent, powerful stuff. But when we deny or avoid any emotions deemed unpleasant, they don’t simply go away. Rather, they grow more significant as they remain unprocessed, behind the scenes, if you will.
According to clinical psychotherapist Noel McDermott, “We can’t select which emotions we’re going to have. If we try to get rid of one set of emotions, we’ll get rid of them all and become numb to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. If you try to get rid of bad emotions, you damage your whole internal world.”
Not only is avoiding ‘negative’ emotions like anxiety, hurt, fear, or anger unsustainable and even harmful, but it is also a waste of valuable information. Just as physical pain is our body’s way of warning us we need to pay attention for our own safety, negative emotions communicate to us that we need to be aware of what’s going on around us, that there may be a threat or a lag or a concern of some kind.
Instead of ignoring negative feelings, we should use our experiences to build resilience, so we are better able to cope with similar situations in the future.
How to avoid being ruled by toxic positivity
If you’re afraid of being labelled a ‘negative person,’ you’re not alone. But it’s important to remember that just because you’re open to experiencing your less pleasant emotions, does not mean you’re powerless to decide how you will express them.
This means that you can feel your way through your anger, grief, or anguish fully without destroying your surroundings or hurting others. While it’s true that being open can sometimes mean undertaking something scary like confronting a person who has done you wrong, there are many healthy and safe ways of doing so. Regardless of the situation, you just have to find what works for you.
Here are a few quick tips on how to circumvent the toxic positivity trap:
1. Learn to feel at home with your own unpleasant feelings
As far as I can tell, the best way to avoid being that person who doesn’t acknowledge other people’s negative emotions is to first acknowledge your own. Toxic positivity starts at home.
Then, go one further and have compassion and kindness for yourself. You’re taking a key step to releasing your stored up, suppressed emotions. Accepting, or even embracing a feeling reduces its power over you.
2. Recognize that social media is like sugar coating
Even if it seems like everyone on Instagram is happy and inspired 24/7, they’re absolutely not. And anyone who tells themselves they are is vulnerable to their own toxic positivity. Don’t poison yourself.
3. Write it down
Author Beth Jacobs, Ph.D, writes, “Journals are like a checkpoint between your emotions and the world.” Try writing down a feeling you’re having (i.e. sadness, worry), and then write down any word or topic it may bring to mind.
Then, write down any word or topic that new one brings to mind. Continue associating new words with your root feeling, and you may just begin to feel an increased sense of clarity about your feelings. Or not. We can’t always make sense of our emotions. But we can accept them, observe them, and let them play themselves out.
Bottom line: if you’re constantly urging your friends and loved ones to stay positive, it’s important to ask yourself if you do this at the expense of other types of expression.
If you do or think you might, it’s highly likely that you subject yourself to the same impossible standards. It may be time to dig deeper. Hard emotional work may seem unpleasant on the surface, but ultimately it’s the best way to grow into a more genuine force for positivity in this world.
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