Have you ever confided in someone about how much worse your anxiety, depression, or mental fatigue has gotten lately and received a response akin to “you don’t have it that bad?” That is an example of the increasingly prevalent concept of toxic positivity. As mental health awareness is rising, so seems to be toxic positivity together with it.
What is toxic positivity?
How can positivity possibly be bad, you may ask? That sounds like a contradiction! The answer to that is: very easily, apparently. Oxymorons do exist, after all.
Though it is most definitely a good thing to find silver linings when possible and try not to dwell on things that are out of your control, toxic positivity goes beyond that. Konstantin Lukin, a licensed psychologist and co-founder of The Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, describes toxic positivity as “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.”
Why is toxic positivity harmful?
This might not sound so bad at first, but the problem here is: just like one should not be negative at all times because it will only make them miserable, forcing oneself to constantly be positive means ignoring and bottling up negative emotions that one needs to express to be able to truly start moving past them.
When you share how horrible you’re feeling to a loved one and they reply with something like “it could be worse!” or “be thankful for what you have!” It can cause one of two scenarios to happen: you may become frustrated with your confidant(s) and choose to not express your negative experiences or emotions to them anymore, or you may internalize their comments and find yourself feeling guilty for feeling the way you do. In both cases, you would be suppressing your emotions and avoiding confronting them in future scenarios.
Studies have shown that ignoring and repressing negative emotions actually increases their power. Thus, it is extremely counterproductive to bottle up emotions instead of expressing them in a healthy manner. Toxic positivity works to shame and guilt the person feeling anything that disrupts the “good vibes,” and if it succeeds, it can worsen one’s mental health.
Intention vs Impact
Why do people respond with toxic positivity when told that someone’s mental health is not doing so well? Of course, there are always going to be people who simply do not understand and genuinely look down on others for struggling with their mental health. However, the most hard-hitting instances are those that come from the people we care about. So, if they care about us, why do they tell us unhelpful and potentially harmful things?
In many cases, our family and friends actually have the best of intentions when they try to remind us how good we supposedly have it. Oftentimes, it is difficult to know what to say or do when a loved one sees us struggling. Words of encouragement are usually the go-to, and toxic positivity can be unwittingly disguised as such.
How to replace toxic positivity with more beneficial responses?
If someone you know has tried to comfort you using toxic positivity but has ended up making you feel worse, you can always sit and talk with them. After all, communication is key. However, it is important to note that it’s best to do so when both of you are calm and collected. If you are the type to get heated or emotional when faced with a negative response, it’s best to wait and talk with the person in question later, when you are able to calmly and respectfully express your thoughts. It’s a good idea to let the person know about some alternative ways they can help when you vent to them. Do you prefer having someone give advice, sympathize, or just listen? Knowing what type of response you usually prefer can be key to avoiding conflict in the future.
If you have read this article and found yourself accidentally guilty of invalidating someone’s feelings by using toxic positivity, don’t worry! We all make mistakes, and what’s important is moving past them without repeating them later on. If the person hasn’t confronted you about what you said, but you know they’re not OK with it or you’re unsure about their feelings, try being the first to speak instead. Just like the previous paragraph, you can try asking what type of consoling makes them feel best after they’ve expressed their sadness, anger, or anxiety about a situation. If you don’t know what to say or how to help after a vent, it’s always nice to hear something like “I know I can’t really make [the situation] go away, but I’m always here if you need someone to listen.”
Finally, if you have internalized toxic positivity towards yourself, there are ways to unlearn it:
Acknowledge and feel your emotions. It’s important to not ignore the negative emotions that come up, or they will stay inside of you and potentially get worse. Feeling bad is normal and should not be treated as some sort of unacceptable flaw within us. It’s OK to have a bad day or feel mentally exhausted.
Express your emotions healthily. Feeling bad is OK, but there are ways to make yourself feel better afterward. Next time you want to cry, let yourself do so without holding back. If you’re feeling angry, find a pillow or other soft object to hit like a punching bag, or write down exactly how you’re feeling in a journal. Alternatively, you can find someone you trust to vent to about the problem. As long as it’s not hurting yourself or others, any method that works is good.
Check back later. The initial wave of negative emotions is always the worst part of feeling bad. However, after following through with the aforementioned coping methods and giving yourself time, it’s important to check up on yourself. Do you feel better than before? This is so you’re able to notice the difference in your feelings; the situation may not have changed, but your feelings about it may not be so intense anymore after letting yourself feel and express them. It will also encourage you to repeat the process that helped you pull through in the future, replacing your old, harmful internalizations with helpful new ones!
All in all, there are definitely situations in which trying to be optimistic is good for you, but that should not be the rule or expectation. Part of being human is feeling pain and anger, and attempting to force those feelings away will only end up making them worse. Sometimes being kind to yourself means letting yourself grieve or rest without feeling guilty.