Have you ever found yourself telling a friend or telling yourself, “Just get over it, there’s no use being sad/angry/disappointed?” Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself comparing the happiness in your life with those you follow on social media or even close friends and family. I think it’s safe to say that we all have engaged in this type of emotional denial and comparison before. I know that I have. You might be thinking, “what’s wrong with being positive?” Well, there isn’t anything wrong with being positive or having a positive outlook on life if you ask me! I believe that there is great power behind positivity. As with many other things in life, too much of anything likely isn’t the healthiest way to live. While being a very positive person is a healthy way of life, toxic positivity is not.
According to experts in the field, toxic positivity refers to the concept that the only way to live life is by being positive, and only positive. This idea means that a person avoids and rejects anything that could trigger negative emotions. This differs from positivity when it’s use becomes excessive and denies a person from feeling and expressing their true emotions. The process of toxic positivity invalidates the authentic human emotional experience, repressing them through denial and minimization of genuine emotion. Toxic positivity in today’s society can be exhibited as a friend or influencer who only portrays themselves on social media as having no flaws, or “living their best life.” This selective and forced positive posting gives the impression that like they are happy and don’t experience the daily struggles of life. This is unrealistic and can be damaging, not only to viewers but to the person behind the screen.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Here are some expressions and experiences of toxic positivity that can assist with identification for you or someone you know:
- Intentionally hiding your true feelings.
- Dismissing a negative emotion to “just get on with it.”
- Feeling guilty for experiencing a negative emotion.
- Minimizing other’s experiences with blanket “feel good” statements (e.g., “there’s always tomorrow, so don’t worry”).
- Changing someone’s perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) which invalidates their emotional experience.
- Shaming others for expressing emotions other than positivity.
- Saying phrases like, “it is what it is,” to brush things off that are actually bothering you.
We are all guilty of this to a certain degree. I occasionally find myself engaging in these behaviors as well. Remember, we are human, and we aren’t perfect! It’s easy to find yourself caught in the cycle of toxic positivity. It’s important to be aware of the adverse effects of denying yourself of authentic human expression by engaging in toxic positivity, which when in excess, leads to feelings of shame, isolation, and/or mental and physical illness.
Having a forced positive outlook on life inherently encourages a person to be silent and repress their struggles. This creates a negative association with how we view difficult emotions. The more we do this, the more we reinforce our perceived inability to experience these times of emotional reactions. Consequently, when negative emotions are experienced by a person with toxic positivity expressions, they are more likely to experience shame associated with feeling them. Renowned author and researcher Brené Brown spoke of shame as being the energy source for secrecy, judgment, and silence. Toxic positivity encourages muting negative emotions and creates shame associated with such emotions.
On the outside, and with help from social media, we are exposed to toxic positivity on a daily basis. We are witness to pictures, conversations, and videos of people who project “good vibes only,” when the reality of life is that it isn’t only good. When toxic positivity is repeated frequently, we start to push our true self away, losing connection with ourselves. This makes it difficult for others to relate to us when we don’t connect with ourselves. Would you be comfortable expressing your struggles to someone who invalidates your experience with “don’t worry, be happy!”? You would likely deem this person unapproachable or unrelatable. As you can see, this contributes to the process of isolation. The impact of isolation can be damaging and can lead to mental and physical illness.
Mental and Physical Illness
According to research, denying feelings and suppressing negative emotions leads to added stress on the mind and body. Psychologists state that when we express a wide range of emotions, positive, negative, and everything in between, express in words how we feel, and physically express emotions (smiling, crying, etc.), can actually help our bodies regulate our stress response. This is because the more we allow ourselves to work through difficult feelings, the better we are able to regulate it. Practice makes perfect… well close to perfect, right?
Toxic positivity allows a person to appear happy or perfect to the outside world, but internally it denies them of experiencing their authentic selves. Suppressed emotions can manifest and exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and physical illnesses. When you deny or avoid negative emotions, you make them bigger. By verbalizing and expressing the reality of our emotions, we relieve our minds and bodies of built up tension caused by denying feelings.
Examples of Non-Toxic and Accepting Statements
|Toxic Positivity||Non-Toxic Acceptance and Validation|
|“Don’t worry, be happy!”||“I see that you’re stressed, anything I can do to help?”|
|“Positive vibes only!”||“I’m here to help support you through the good and bad.”|
|“It could be worse.”||“That seems tough. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”|
|“Don’t think about it, stay positive!”||“I’m listening. Describe what you are feeling.”|
What to Do Instead
Instead of allowing toxic positivity to control your life, you could instead begin to accept that difficult emotions aid with coping and decreasing the intensity of those emotions. Part of this is altering your view of emotions as “good” or “bad,” rather, think of them as a form of guidance. If we are sad, we might be seeking comfort, or if we are angry, we might need to engage in grounding techniques. Our emotions are expressions of our minds and bodies, guiding us towards what we need.
While positivity holds great impact on the way we live our lives, toxic positivity jeopardizes a healthy lifestyle by denying ourselves of a human existence and connection. Instead of practicing toxic positivity, try being mindful and aware of the emotions that surface and accept their guidance. If you find yourself being influenced by other’s toxic positivity, I encourage you to set healthy boundaries to honor your authentic experiences and truths.
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why we feel a particular way, or we are unsure of what our needs are. That’s okay! A good starting place could be seeking professional assistance. This can be done through a licensed mental health professional or clinical intern at the Center for Trauma, Stress, and Anxiety. Please call (443) 567–7037 to make an appointment to speak with one of our therapists.