There's an undeniable power in positivity. But the recent trend of having "good vibes only" also has a dark side: Meet toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective practice of generalizing yourself as happy or as "looking at the bright side" in all situations. It is asking yourself or others to turn off their emotions or consideration of negative outcomes in the pursuit of staying optimistic or staying happy.
Toxic positivity is a cultural trend that's reinforced every time we say something that's not fine is "fine" or that we're "doing OK" when we're doing terribly. It's reinforced every time we tell someone "it's fine," "that's nothing" or "just smile." It favors external signs of happiness and the general comfort of people around you over honesty, authenticity and hard conversations.
Engaging in toxic positivity can be conscious or unconscious. In the U.S., it's a cultural norm to "be polite" and keep your personal business out of most conversations, allowing toxic positivity to run rampant whether we realize it or not.
Why is forced positivity bad?
While optimism is an important aspect of building resilience and living a generally happy life, forced positivity can be harmful for a host of reasons. When pushed to far, the need to be positive can result in the denial, minimization or invalidation of the authentic human experience. Sometimes things make us feel bad. Sometimes things are terrible. That should be accepted as a part of life — anything else is dishonest.
A culture of toxic positivity can also result in dishonesty and a lack of transparency and accountability. The need to always "look at things on the bright side" can keep important conversations about the bad side of things from happening, whether it's a conversation about how someone made us feel that we need resolution from or a negative outlook we need to prepare for.
Can positivity impact your health?
When we push our bad feelings down, it can have impacts on our individual health, too. Strong, close relationships aren't based on lies and "good vibes." As a result, engaging in toxic positivity can mean weak relationships, feelings of isolation or being alone and even depression. At the same time, feeling alone in, well, feeling negative can result in shame — an emotion that can lead to depression and anxiety.
On top of all that, suppressing emotions can result in increased stress and anxiety, according to research done at Stanford University. Both of those afflictions can result in a host of physical and mental afflictions, including high blood pressure, chest pain, headaches, sleep problems, digestive issues, muscle weakness and troubles concentrating, according to Medical News Today.
Signs of toxic positivity.
The following are signs you're engaging in toxic positivity:
- You often find you hide your real feelings behind positive sayings like "I'm actually doing fine" or "that wasn't that bad,"
- You try to "just get over it" instead of expressing or mediating your negative emotions,
- You tell yourself that "things could always be worse" to curb your negative emotions,
- You feel guilty about feeling bad,
- You judge others as "weak" or "annoying" for expressing sadness or negative thoughts,
- You give others perspective ("things could be worse!") instead of support when they come to you with a negative thought or feeling.
How to deal with toxic positivity.
So, how can you turn toxic positivity around? Try taking up these habits:
- It sounds cheesy, but remind yourself that sadness, anger, envy and fear all exist for a reason. Whether our body and brain are trying to warn us about something, lead us to a new destination, manage a question or just be, our emotions can be celebrated as a meaningful and even useful part of being human.
- When someone tells you (or you tell yourself) that "things could be worse," remind yourself that your emotions are valid and let yourself feel them. Processing your negative emotions doesn't cheapen someone else's "worse" situation — it just helps you accept, grow and heal.
- While expressing sadness or negativity with a good cry or a heart-to-heart may be most soothing, if you find it difficult to express negative emotions out loud, try writing out how something makes you really feel. Journaling is known to help people process their emotions and decrease stress.
- Learn about becoming an empathetic listener. Try to catch yourself if you find yourself saying things that reinforce a culture of toxic positivity. Instead of telling someone how they can feel better in a bad situation, lead with questions and validations about how they're feeling.