3 Ways Toxic Positivity is Ruining Your Life

Leah O'Daniel

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Person behind coffee cup with text that reads "See the good"Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Bloom where you’re planted

Years ago, as a young military spouse, I attended a book luncheon. It was hosted by, (what military culture terms) a seasoned spouse — a title bestowed on military-affiliated folks meaning experienced.

This woman wrote a book about her life as a military spouse and then traveled around to promote it. The book was about her time on the homefront — raising children alone, relocating every few years, and other military life nuances.

The theme? Bloom where you’re planted. BWYP for a cutesy spin on military culture acronyms. (Complete with seeded paper heart party favors.)

The philosophy of BWYP was always to search for the silver lining. Make the best of everything. You could survive anything so long as you had a bright outlook. Ergo, you can thrive and bloom wherever military life takes you if you are positive enough about it.

I sort of laugh-snorted at this notion. Flowers and plants bloom according to various factors. Environment, geographical location, pH levels, air, soil. Perennial or annual. Not because they had the will to bloom.

I left the luncheon early. I couldn’t stop laughing at the cartoonish image of a plant willing itself to bloom by thinking happy plant thoughts.

Before this, I grew up in the shadow of toxic positivity plus religion too. I didn’t know that’s what it was then.

The philosophy was the same. If you were positive enough, everything would be fine. And if you weren’t positive enough then any negative emotions or adverse experience was your fault. If you’d have been more positive, it wouldn’t have been so hard.

I sort of laugh snorted at those notions then too. Despite that, I didn’t know what deep damage this idea was doing to my psyche.

I wouldn’t fully understand toxic positivity nor the damage until my son was stillborn, late in the second trimester. I was devastated. But the rest of the world offered me nothing but positive platitudes on a silver-lined platter.

Navigating the waters of emotional annihilation (commonly called grief) plus the insistence of society to just be happy enough to get over it already was nothing short of overwhelming.

Folks all over my life seemed to have the answer for all this, too. Suggesting that I should try yoga, support groups, antidepressants, exercise. I scoffed but reluctantly gave the ol SSRI another try. They solved nothing. (Because I wasn’t depressed. I was grieving.)

No matter how hard I tried, I could not find a positive side. Not even a hint of silver anything, much less a lining. Yet, the rest of society treated me as if I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I started to believe there was something really, really wrong with me.

Life-long, toxic positivity tropes built a foundation that made me believe my identity was rooted in being a brash, pessimistic, realist. I never could positively think myself out of a bad mood. The trauma, tragedy, grief, and post-traumatic growth unraveled a lifetime’s worth of damage from this conditioning. Through all that I learned the ways that toxic positivity can ruin so much in life.

Here are 3 detrimental ways toxic positivity is ruining our lives.

1.) Hijacks our ability to form authentic connections

Society conditions you to show the world how happy and successful you are. This has become increasingly complicated with the prevalence of social media (Fakebook, err, I mean Facebook). If you deviate from this idea that you must put forth a happy face all the time, the consequences can be harsh.

When everyone functions on the notion that positivity is the key, no one can be 100% authentic. Without authenticity, you lack vulnerability — a key component of connection. This short circuits your ability to connect in ways that matter. Without this, you can unintentionally build support systems that have no idea how to provide support in trying times.

2.) Impairs our ability to navigate emotions or build resiliency

If positive outlooks and silver linings are all you’re taught, you can never learn what emotions feel like or how to navigate them.

This means that your emotional resiliency may be low later in life. It’s impossible to know or name which emotion you are feeling under the lens of toxic positivity. Making it difficult to learn how to provide proper care when you’re feeling anxious, sad, or angry.

Further, toxic positivity and the inability to identify or deal with emotions means you can struggle to advocate for yourself when it comes to mental health care.

3.) Creates an easy way to avoid everything

Toxic positivity, at the core, is a form of emotional avoidance.

Always searching for the bright side, repeating positive mantras, and blasting ‘Good Vibes Only!’ personas is damaging over time. Doing this means you’re avoiding dealing with emotions, trauma, or mental health.

Years of repressed emotions and avoidance can lead to a plethora of problems. Increased risk for depression and anxiety, explosive anger, erratic mood swings. Avoidance causes chronic stress which can, over time, disrupt hormones and deplete brain chemicals necessary for happiness.

How to avoid

There are tons of ways you can start to unravel toxic positivity in your life. A few basic beginner tactics are mood journaling, resting, and reparenting affirmations.

Mood Journaling

Keeping track of your emotions. These do not have to be elaborate journal entries. You can jot down a brief explanation of what happened and how it made you feel.

Why this works:

A mood journal can provide you with a blueprint of your emotions. This will allow you to build a knowledge base of how emotions show up for you. Some people feel sadness immediately while others will react with anger first. Keep a mood journal to find out for yourself.

Resting

Not elaborate vacations or entire days dedicated to doing nothing. Resting in this sense is allowing yourself any amount of time to be still, even for a few moments.

Why this works:

Resting in this way is really about giving yourself permission. Allowing whatever emotion it is that you are feeling to exist. Toxic positivity teaches that this is wrong. To undo that, you must first unlink the feelings of negativity from allowing emotions to exist. Resting for a few moments in the car after work because your boss pissed you off is the perfect way to do this. Over time, this can build emotional resiliency.

Reparenting Affirmations

Statements are spoken by you, for you, and to you. A brief explanation of reparenting is that you have an inner child. Affirmations in this way are spoken to that inner child.

Why this works:

The point of this is validation. Statements like “You are safe” and “Your feelings are justified” can, over time, undo a lot of damage from lifelong toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity conditions you to believe that there are positive (happiness, excitement) and negative (anger, sadness) emotions. Because of this, it can be difficult in adulthood to break down the barrier between you and your emotions. Providing validation is a key component of taking this barrier down.

The Take-Away

Toxic positivity has been prevalent for generations. The compounded misunderstanding of mental health, societal norms, and enforced gender roles have caused some damage.

It’s short-circuited our abilities to form a true connection through shared vulnerability. Robbed us of being able to experience the whole range of human emotions. Created a black hole of avoidance that, over time, has increased anxiety and depression.

And for what? To save face? To present a false image to the world? To perpetuate a fake it til you make it persona?

Don’t waste another second doubling down on this outdated concept. Utilize the 3 tips above to start dismantling your conditioning.

I highly recommend following Tiffany Roe, over at Mindful Counseling. Tiffany’s feel, deal, heal mantra brings a modern twist to mental health care. She’s the host of Therapy Thoughts podcast. You can find her on Instagram too.

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Freelance writer. Adventuring military spouse sharing my favorite local spots across the US.

El Paso County, TX
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