What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is a term that refers to an unhelpful fixation with positive thinking and pleasant emotional states. 

In this episode of Mentally Stronger, I shed some light on toxic positivity and how it can negatively impact you and your loved ones. Plus, I share four ways to avoid it.

What is toxic positivity?

Somebody who’s caught up in toxic positivity may try to appear happy all the time and put a positive spin on all the experiences that happen in their lives – even if they’re quite painful, or even traumatic, or tragic things.  

They may do this by putting enormous pressure on themselves to try to be happy all the time, even when they’re struggling or going through something hard.

They may also do this with others. Maybe they’ll tell someone who’s grieving or heartbroken to “just get over it” and look for the positive in their situation. There is a basic sense of intolerance of any unpleasant emotions in themselves or others. 

Toxic positivity often suppresses authentic emotional expression, demeans grief, and puts people under pressure to hide their true experience.

Why toxic positivity needs to be avoided

Before we go on, I just want to acknowledge here that, of course, positive thinking can be a wonderful, empowering and strengthening thing. It’s really great to focus on what you’re grateful for in life, the goodness in yourself and others in the world, and aim to have a generally positive outlook in life. 

However if we start to believe that we should be positive all the time, then we might start to ignore really serious issues in our lives and within ourselves. 

Sometimes we’re not doing okay for good reason, and something needs to change or we might need to grow in some way. Seeing and acknowledging that clearly can be the beginning of healing and change. 

Also, when we demand positivity from our loved ones, no matter what they’re going through, instead of giving them understanding and empathy, we might start to make them feel really stigmatised and judged.

Positivity is not a panacea for everything in life

While positivity can be helpful in a lot of situations, it’s not a panacea for all of life’s challenges. 

The reality is that we human beings feel a wide range of emotions, each of which is a really important part of our human experience. 

Part of what it means to live a full, rich and meaningful human life is actually allowing ourselves to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. And in the harder times, compassion, authenticity and kindness are very good companions.

As researcher Brené Brown said: 

“What we know now is that when we deny our emotion, it owns us. When we own our emotion, we can rebuild and find our way through the pain.”

How to avoid toxic positivity

Here are four ways you can avoid toxic positivity in your life and have a healthier emotional expression and greater mental flexibility and strength.

1. Remember that unpleasant emotions are natural

First of all, remind yourself that unpleasant emotions are as natural a part of the human experience as pleasant ones.

2. Name your emotions

Mentally name your emotions when they arrive. That gives you space to acknowledge that it’s happening and gives the emotion space to be. 

So, if you’re feeling anger, think “Ok, I’m angry right now”. If you’re feeling sadness, think “Ok, I’m sad right now.” 

Acknowledging and meeting our emotions with understanding and compassion is a much better and healthier option than pretending the emotions are not there, ignoring them, or trying to suppress them.

3. Seek support from trusted people

Talk to trusted people and explain exactly what you are going through.

4. Don’t try to fix or change your loved ones

Give empathy and care to someone who’s hurting rather than trying to fix them, change them or tell them to get over it. 

Focus on giving empathy, love and support.

Going forward, be on the lookout for any signs of toxic positivity within yourself. As best you can, use these four tools to have a healthier and wiser relationship with your emotions.

I really hope this is helpful for you. 

Take care and stay strong.

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