What is toxic positivity?
You may be aware of the terms toxic people and toxic relationships that are associated with constant negativity and being negative.
Toxic positivity is exactly the opposite – it’s an obsession with optimistic or positive thinking. It’s a belief that one should always put a positive spin on things, even when their experiences have been profoundly tragic.
In short, it’s an assumption that feeling negative emotions is bad and that people should always maintain a positive mindset, a positive “vibe” around them, no matter how difficult a situation they are facing.
The difference between positivity and toxic positivity
Having a positive mindset cannot be bad, right?
But, positivity in excess is bad, like all things in surplus are.
By rejecting the existence of particular feelings, we force ourselves or are coerced by others to feel a certain way, thereby falling into a state of denial and repressed emotions.
As humans, we are flawed; we naturally feel jealous, angry, resentful, greedy. By pretending to be positive the whole time, we refuse the reality of a genuine human experience. In fact, suppressing feelings can cause further anxiety, depression, and overall mental health deterioration.
The difference, therefore, lies in dealing with what’s actually happening, whether good or bad, compared to blindly asserting all’s well, whether it is or isn’t.
Furthermore, toxic positivity makes it harder to form authentic connections as you’d find it tough pouring your heart out to someone who’s always propagating the positive vibes mantra.
Finally, we end up having fake connections, superficial relationships, and shallow intimacy levels.
Recognizing toxic positivity
Toxic positivity manifests in various forms; here are some signs to recognize it in your daily life:
- Hiding/masking your true feelings
- Trying to “get on with it” by dismissing an emotion/s
- Feeling guilty/ashamed of how you feel
- Urging to “focus on the positive” instead of validating emotional experiences
- Minimizing people’s experiences with “feel good” statements or quotes
- Brushing off someone’s concerns by saying, “it could be worse.”
- Asserting after a catastrophe that “everything happens for a reason.”
- Labeling people who always appear positive or don’t share their emotions as being stronger or more likable than others
Toxic positivity at work
Besides the burden of constantly looking happy and cheerful, you may also experience the pressure to be forever productive. This is especially relevant with the lockdown when the times are such that we should be able to just about make it through the day without having a mental breakdown or an anxiety attack.
The red flags to identify the cycle of toxic positivity at work are:
- Regularly feeling stressed, anxious, or restless
- Overlooking personal needs such as resting, sleeping, spending time with family, and finding it to be fruitless
- Setting unrealistic work expectations, feeling tired and on the verge of a burn-out
- Attaching your self-worth to how productive you’ve been through the day.
And yet, there’s an overdose of social media posts telling us it’s the best time to start a side hustle, learn a new language, pick up a new skill, begin a fitness regime, and so on.
Of course, if doing these things makes you happy, go ahead, but there’s no compulsion when you’re in the least bit interested. Glorifying the hustle culture as the only means of success spreads this toxicity.
Ultimately, it’s best to remove society’s expectations of what we should feel, do or have.
Why is it harmful?
Toxic positivity can actually harm people going through tough times. Rather than being able to share genuine human emotions and gain unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or invalidated.
- Demeaning a loss: Grief and sadness are normal in the face of loss. A person who repeatedly hears messages to move on or be happy might feel as though others do not care about their loss. For example, a parent who’s lost a child might feel that their child was unimportant to others, deepening their grief.
- Isolation and stigma: People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, preventing them from seeking help, especially those needing mental health support.
- Communication issues: Every relationship has challenges. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive. This approach can break communication and the ability to solve relationship problems.
- Low self-esteem: Everyone experiences negative emotions, sometimes. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore their negative emotions, even though unbearable, can make them feel even more powerful. When a person is unable to feel positive, they may think they are losing it.
How to deal with toxic positivity?
- Avoid suppressing/suffocating your feelings.
Allow feeling all emotions, both the giddy happiness and the trough-like sorrows. If possible, always try to verbalize them to someone you trust to get things off your chest to find that long-awaited surge of relief.
- Listen to your feelings.
Acknowledge and listen to all your feelings, including the unpleasant ones, because none of us can sustainably program ourselves to feel only happiness. Accept everything but choose not to get entangled in a vicious cycle of purely negative thoughts.
It’s beneficial to look on the bright side and find the silver lining at certain times in life; however, don’t force this outlook upon yourself while tottering through a phase of pain, loss, grief, or frustration.
- Be self-compassionate.
You don’t have to shoot for the stars each day. Instead, it’s better to be realistic, set practical, actionable daily goals, as these baby steps will build solid habits in the long run. And, if you fail to achieve those goals, no need to beat yourself up over it. Instead, show yourself more self-love, grace, and compassion.
- Create a safe space for others.
Forcing a positive outlook on someone stifles them from being honest, encouraging them to stay silent regarding their sorrows. Your perspective may differ from theirs, but there’s no need to impose it. Just by listening attentively to their thoughts, you may support them to cope and heal from the pain & hurt.
Of course, be alert of your own emotions while you’re at it. If the weight of what they share begins to grow heavier than you can bear, it’s okay to take a step back and safeguard your own mental well-being.
- Draw healthy boundaries.
When you notice someone acting or speaking in a toxic-ly positive way, call it out kindly and respectfully. They may be well-intentioned and yet not realize their words are leading to more harm than good.
Alternatively, you may wish to form healthy boundaries with people who choose to dismiss or shame you for being genuine with your feelings.
- Pausing is productive.
In a world where the hustle culture is looked upon highly, people are accustomed to thinking that rest equates to laziness and a lack of persistence. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
There’s nothing wrong with striving hard to achieve your goals and ambitions but pausing is just as fruitful; it helps you recharge, reenergize, refocus so you’re ready to take on what’s to come.
- Take a break from social media.
Social media filters the perspectives of someone else’s life, with most people posting only about their wins and successes. Hence, taking a break from social media might be a strategic move to preserve your mental well-being. This is especially so if you constantly compare yourself with others and feel discontent after engaging with their content.
Accepting that it’s ok to not be ok.
A poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, ‘The Guest House’, paints a profoundly accurate and stunningly beautiful picture of our minds and thoughts.
The poem metaphorically describes our minds as doors and our thoughts as guests.
When thoughts come knocking at our door (mind), trying to obtain permission to enter, we must welcome them all in respectfully, both the good and the bad. Celebrate them with love, laughter. And enjoy a cup of coffee with them. Feel fortunate as each one has a certain purpose and will teach you something new.
This thought is similar to the concept of mindfulness, making our feelings heard instead of completely shutting out the negative emotions. At the same time, you need not identify with them nor judge them.
You are not the anxiety, sadness, grief, sorrow, or depression you experience. You don’t have to hand them the power to define the person you truly are.