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Dangers of Toxic Positivity + What to Do Instead

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Toxic positivity - Dr. AxePractices like positive self-talk and affirmations are often recommended by therapists for people with low self-esteem, but rarely do we stop to ask ourselves, “Is too much positivity a bad thing?” Many experts believe it can be — which is exactly why the term “toxic positivity” was first coined and now seems to be a topic of increased discussion after 2020 more than ever.

What is toxic positivity, and why can it be bad for your mental health?

Let’s look closer at potential symptoms tied to being “fakely positive,” plus healthier ways to handle the inevitable ups and downs in life in order to come out feeling happier in the long term.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

According to Psychology Today, 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.”

What’s another way to say toxic positivity (also called “forced positivity”)?

While practicing positivity in life does offer some benefits, it’s key to strike a balance regarding how you respond to different emotions.

The idea behind too much positivity being harmful is that feeling and processing difficult or negative feelings are equally as important for growth and well-being as feeling the good ones.

Signs/Symptoms

The main problem with toxic positivity is that it can create a sense of guilt for feeling negative emotions. When guilt isn’t resolved for many months or even years, it can contribute to chronic stress.

In addition to guilt, other signs and symptoms associated with denial of negative emotions can include:

  • Self-doubt and feeling inauthentic, due suppressing or lying about how one really feels
  • Jealousy and envy of others who seem to have happier lives
  • Resentment and anger
  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Feeling isolated, since you’re pretending to feel a certain way that you don’t
  • Sense of pressure to appear happy and grateful
  • Decline in relationship quality
  • Poor self-esteem and self-trust
  • Symptoms tied to stress, including changes in appetite, sleep, energy levels, etc.

Dangers

How can “relentless focus on positivity” actually be dangerous when it comes to your mental health?

When someone constantly forces herself or himself to “always look on the bright side,” that person may actually be missing out on important information, life lessons and meaningful relationships.

Potential dangers and drawbacks associated with toxic positivity can include:

  • Missing out on opportunities for growth — Confronting both positive and negative feelings is one aspect of living a “wholehearted life.” In other words, when you erase the uncomfortable aspects of life, you basically deny yourself a big portion of the human experience. Emotions (both good and bad) help us make sense of things and are a form of guidance. Denying that you have made mistakes, have imperfections and experience failure also robs you of important lessons that can be learned only through experience and self-reflection.
  • Shallow relationships — It might seem counter-intuitive, but the majority of people like others more when they are willing to expose their imperfections. Feeling like you can relate to someone, and that they are OK with being vulnerable with you, is what leads to meaningful relationships. This means that if your relationships become more like a “performance of happiness,” in which you avoid difficult conversations or showing how you really feel, you’ll be trading deep and supportive relationships for those that are shallow.
  • Increased risk for depression — Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding them, is beneficial for psychological health and well-being. This is called “emotional acceptance,” which was the focus of a 2018 study that investigated its impact on mental health. The study found that when people deny that they are feeling difficult emotions, they wind up suppressing them and feeling less happy than if they dealt with them head on. Similarly, two separate studies found that people who embrace uncomfortable feelings wind up having more compassion for themselves and are at lower risk of feeling depressed.
  • Poorer problem solving — Acknowledging negative emotions and working through challenges are both referred to as “resilience-building experiences.” In order to think with a clear head about challenges in our lives and respond in a healthy manner, we have to be willing to address the source of our struggles. Some experts recommend that when it comes to our emotions, we “name them to tame them,” meaning we call our feelings by their names so we can start to work through them.
  • Physical problems tied to stress — A large body of research suggests that suppressed emotions don’t disappear — rather they stay within your unconscious mind and also in your physical body. Several studies have demonstrated that emotional suppression contributes to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which governs our “fight or flight” response that is linked to stress. Over time, unresolved emotional stress can deteriorate someone’s health, leading to risk for issues, like heart disease, headaches, muscle pains, insomnia and indigestion.
  • Less engagement in the workplace — In recent years, researchers have begun focusing more on the effects of toxic positivity in the workplace, especially in 2020 when many employees faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. Emerging research shows that when leaders show authentic vulnerability and are honest about challenges, they actually wind up becoming viewed as stronger leaders. Team members at work are also more likely to bond and become cohesive if they perceive that their company is being transparent with them.

Healthy Positivity

What is the opposite of toxic positivity? Essentially, “healthy positivity” is remembering that it’s OK to not always be OK.

You can learn to embrace pain, frustration, anxiety and other negative emotions and view them as normal and even beneficial aspects of life.

This doesn’t mean that you have to indulge in having a negative bias — which describes how negative thoughts and events have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive ones do — but it does mean you can allow yourself to feel both pleasant and unpleasant emotions without judgment.

Many experts believe that the healthier alternative to toxic positivity is self-compassion, which is the capacity to approach your feelings nonjudgmentally and to be at peace with your emotions regardless of what they are.

Mindfulness practices, including meditation and journaling, can also help you pay attention to your emotions and process them in a healthy way, which is beneficial for understanding yourself better.

Basically, most therapists encourage you to acknowledge that life gets really hard at times, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Feeling down is a normal part of the human experience for every person, and even when a particular part of life feels really bad, that doesn’t mean that everything is bad.

How to Deal With Toxic Positivity

1. Don’t be scared to be vulnerable and to seek support — As mentioned above, disclosing your honest feelings and being vulnerable are keys to fostering closeness. You might be worried about how people will react to you feeling sad, angry or hurt, and that’s OK.

It’s important to point out that people who try to cheer you up when you express sadness, and who are naturally optimistic, usually only have good intentions, even if they aren’t actually being very supportive. That said, if well-meaning family and friends pressure you to always “look on the bright side,” it’s OK to stick up for yourself.

2. Gives others the space to speak their truth —When it comes to how you support other people in your life who are going through difficult times, try to resist always offering advice or a pep talk, which can make the person feel invalidated for feeling negative.

Instead, consider just listening and allowing the person to vent, be heard and even to cry without you presenting solutions. You can also explain that you’ve been through a similar situation or that you can relate, since it usually helps to hear that others have faced similar struggles.

Asking follow-up questions can also be helpful, since this allows the person to make sense of her/his feelings and to gain clarity.

3. Consider limiting social media use — Unplugging and staying off of social media for a period of time can help you avoid comparing yourself to others, who may be acting happy when they aren’t in fact feeling this way. Consider doing a “digital detox” and spending more time reading and journaling instead.

Conclusion

  • Toxic positivity refers to the harmful belief that it’s only OK to feel, behave and present yourself like you are happy and “positive.” It involves acting cheerful when you really feel sad, hurt, angry, etc.
  • This approach is problematic because it involves denying and avoiding negative feelings/experiences, such as pain, anxiety, guilt and sadness, that can actually be important for growth.
  • Dangers of being “fakely” positive all the time include having shallow relationships, experiencing depression, being less engaged in work, having lower-self esteem and self-trust, and missing out on important life lessons.
  • Here’s how to deal with it: The opposite of toxic positivity is compassion, for both yourself and others. This translates to you being OK with not being OK and embracing negative emotions without judgment (and even with gratitude).
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