Is Toxic Positivity a Real Thing?

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Hello friend,— rainbows, fairy dust, and unicorn-believer here. As someone who tosses out well-living advice right and left…I am sweating this new “toxic positivity” thing. Like, how can you have too much positivity?

Then, I remember times when I was suffering, truly suffering, and some annoying, smiling well-doer quoted some super-uplifting quote and had a positivity answer to everything. Sometimes, empathy is better than beating someone about the head and neck with power quotes, self-help books, and shiny verse.

Sometimes, positivity can hurt people.

What is this “toxic positivity”? What does that even mean?

Toxic positivity is problematic because it does not allow for the very normal and healthy processing of emotions that more on the negative side. Criticism of the over-bubbly disposition includes denial of one’s own emotions, an excessive avoidance practice, and the emotional distance it creates in the place of actual, authentic empathy.

Toxic Positivity can be defined in these ways:

The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. — Psychology Today
We define toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. The Psychology Group

This is not to say that a positive lifestyle in and of itself is toxic. Having a strong mental fortitude, a positive outlook, an “attitude of gratitude” can all be very helpful and productive to keep your life on track and moving in a desirable direction. Positivity becomes toxic when it becomes a way to pretend, to deny one’s own authenticity, and to keep the “ugly” parts of the world at bay.

You may be expressing or embodying toxic positivity if:

  • You are using positivity to try to control others’ emotions. People must be able to process their emotions without a ‘positivity-wash’ and ‘ dismissal of their emotions’ from you.
  • You are avoiding conflict by trying to focus on only the positive things in the world around you. Avoiding the conflict may mean that you are also avoiding the nurturing of true relationship.
  • You are in denial of the negative things in your life or in the lives of others.
  • You are not able to connect with the negative emotions of others for fear of triggering negativity within yourself.
  • You are not being realistic.
  • You feel guilty over negative emotions.
  • You are stuffing your feelings down — or by your dismissal, forcing others to swallow their own negative feelings, untended.
  • If you feel exhausted from trying to stay positive all the time.

Positivity can have very cathartic results in our life. It can pull us out of a dark place. It can help us to thwart a case of the “negative Nancy” that can settle in sometimes. It can help us to be a better friend, family member, supportive partner. But too much of it can actually hurt those relationships and be detrimental to your own mental well-being.

In Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes, authors Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD remind us that “Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions.” Pay special attention to that part about “silencing the human experience.”

By silencing others, you are denying their human experience. You are dismissing their reality and invalidating them, when that is likely not your intent.

Quintero and Long go on to explain “By pretending that we are ‘positive vibes all day,’ we deny the validity of a genuine human experience.”

The intent of sharing positivity with others is typically a well-meaning one, but careful not to allow the need to express positivity with others to overshadow what the other person is feeling. Do not allow your positivity to become a dismissal of their inherent human right to be and to feel and to express how they are feeling. They are, after all, trusting you with their emotions and their personal experience. You do not want to blast them with unintentional gaslighting that shuts them down.

Toxic positivity can lead you into unprocessed shame, suppressed emotions, isolation, feelings of guilt, emotional distance, and even depression. It is important to maintain a healthy balance between your efforts to stay positive and have a pleasant attitude and being a real human being with a wide range of emotions. If you are able to embrace, address, and process all of your emotions, both positive and negative, you can be a more healthy, well-minded individual. This carries over into your relationships and on the whole, has a more positive effect on your relationships than simply sprinkling “happy dust” everywhere you go.

Here’s how to stay positive and keep it ‘real’

  • Acknowledge the truth. Whether positive or negative. We cannot address what we cannot admit.
  • When someone shares with you their negative emotion or experience, first acknowledge their reality. Express empathy first. Follow up with a positive message if you sense the other person is welcome to it.
  • Set limits and boundaries if you must protect yourself and your own mental well-being from too much negativity. You can still be an empathetic and positive person without immersing yourself in negativity to prove it.
  • Practice authentic positivity. This is a form of practice and it feels like a verb when in action. If it feels forced or fake — reevaluate your true feelings and take the time to process them.
  • Do use self-affirmations, quotes, positive thinking, etc. if it helps you to keep your best foot forward, but be flexible. When negativity shows up — deal with it by addressing it, acknowledging it, and admitting it is fully human. There is nothing wrong with being a human with a wide range of emotions! If your friends and family are able to come to you and be their most honest, authentic selves, and are welcomed in doing so, it will be a ‘positivity experience’ in and of itself.
  • Do not “shut down” someone by making them feel like they need to just get over it or just deal with it. Also, do not immediately gaslight by sharing a bigger experience than what they are trying to communicate. Listen, empathize, let them know you are there for them, and ask what you can do to help.

For all of my fellow rainbow-tossing, unicorn-hugging, faerie-chasing positive spirits — there is nothing wrong with you. If people are accusing you of toxic positivity, use it as a self-check. It may be time just to check in with your own emotions and make sure you are being authentic. But also, it may be a moment when the other party just needs a different kind of support from you.

(Do You have stories to tell? Write them for NewsBreak!)

For more reading:

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Guide to Breaking Up in a Pandemic (Without Losing Your Mind)

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