“Look on the bright side!”
“Have a positive attitude!”
“Look for the silver lining of that gray cloud!”
You have probably heard or even used these phrases before, perhaps when being comforted by someone during a particularly rough time, or when trying to comfort someone yourself.
These kinds of phrases are indicative of “toxic positivity.”
Toxic positivity is the denial of the negative emotions and experiences of life by replacing them with superficial happiness and positivity.
It demeans and devalues the negative emotions that we sometimes need to experience in life.
Life is complicated and painful at times. It’s okay for it to be difficult and painful.
It’s also okay for people to feel sad, angry, depressed, anxious, or otherwise disturbed by these circumstances.
Toxic positivity denies these negative feelings and keeps a person from processing their emotions correctly.
You cannot avoid or deny the suffering that will come.
When you do, it just festers until it builds up enough to become a more serious problem.
Furthermore, many valuable life lessons and wisdom are hard-earned through suffering and by overcoming the challenges that life presents us.
To deny these negative emotions the space they deserve is to stunt one’s own emotional growth.
Of course, there is a delicate balance to be struck.
Yes, it is wrong to deny the negative experiences in one’s life and try to replace them with a superficial positivity.
But it doesn’t help to dwell on one’s adverse circumstances either.
Ruminating on negative emotions can also cause problems by feeding the beast without actually finding any resolution.
And sometimes you just get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, so you slap on a smile and get on with it. Occasionally you have to.
What are some signs of toxic positivity, and how can you best avoid it?
1. Feeling guilty for experiencing negative emotions.
“My life is so good, I shouldn’t feel bad.”
“I’m so stupid for feeling bad.”
Toxic positivity can manifest as guilt when you feel bad for experiencing negative emotions.
Of course, the negative feelings will feel bad. But to feel bad, guilt, or shamed for feeling those emotions is indicative of toxic positivity.
A person in that situation may tell themselves that they have no reason to feel those emotions and should be happy with their situation.
You may find that you have inflicted this on other people, or other people have inflicted it on you by telling you what you should and shouldn’t be feeling.
“Smile! What do you have to be unhappy about?”
“Oh, your life is so easy. Why are you always so miserable?”
“No one likes a sad sack. Cheer up!”
If you are someone who says these kinds of things, the best rule of thumb is to never tell anyone how they should or should not feel.
By telling someone how they should or should not feel, you invalidate how they are currently feeling.
This tells them that you are not someone they should be talking to about the problems.
If someone tells you these kinds of things, the best thing to do is assert that you are allowed to have negative emotions. Do not give in to their messaging.
It may be that they don’t understand how to give meaningful emotional support or that they just aren’t that emotionally intelligent.
Knowing how to comfort someone going through a hard time is a learned skill, not something we are inherently born with.
2. Masking your true feelings with fake positivity.
“Could be worse!”
“I’ve got nothing to complain about!”
Do you make space for the negative feelings that you have?
Or do you try to repackage them as something positive?
Sometimes our experiences and emotions just aren’t positive. Sometimes we just don’t feel happy, optimistic, or upbeat.
We don’t always have to grin and bear it.
It’s okay to feel negative feelings when you need to.
But what if you can’t?
What if you don’t have time?
What if you have other things that need to get handled right now?
I don’t have time to cry! I have to work! There’s housework that needs doing! I need to call and get this appointment figured out!
In that scenario, you have to set aside time to let yourself feel what you need to feel.
But it’s not imperative that you feel what you need to feel right now.
The important thing is that you give yourself some space and permission to feel those negative feelings when you can.
3. Providing perspective instead of empathy and validation.
“Well, it could be worse.”
“You know, XYZ person has it much harder than you.”
The spirit of providing some perspective can be interpreted as useful, but it doesn’t do the job well.
Empathy and validation go much further in providing meaningful support to yourself or others.
The key to finding empathy and providing validation is knowing when not to talk.
Many people speak because they feel compelled, even pressured, to have something meaningful to say.
The truth of the matter is that there are many situations where there just isn’t anything good to say.
A person who is experiencing a tragedy or going through hard times is not oblivious to the suffering of other people.
What they are most concerned about at the moment is their own negative feelings.
Trying to provide perspective is a means of trying to shove oneself or another person onto a track of avoidance.
“I’m not going to feel what I need to feel because someone else has it worse than I do.”
Toxic positivity is avoidance, as is providing perspective.
4. Minimizing or shaming the experiences of yourself or others.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Other people have been through worse.”
These things do not mean that the negative emotions are unimportant.
When we minimize emotions, whether they are ours or not, we deprive the person of the ability to feel their emotions honestly and safely.
It comes back to avoidance of the negative and a superficial focus on the positive.
Messages like “it’s not that big of a deal” encourage us to look away from the negativity instead of confronting and dealing with it.
Why is toxic positivity such a problem?
Being a human being is hard work. There’s so much suffering to try to find peace with in life.
By trying to focus on only the positive and not giving space to the negative emotions we feel, we make it harder on ourselves and loved ones to heal and grow.
Harboring those negative emotions for long periods and not dealing with them actually worsens our health by causing extra stress.
And stress itself has so many adverse effects on the body, like increased anxiety, blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, depression, fertility, sexual dysfunctions, and so much more.
Toxic positivity also erodes and destroys relationships.
When you are forcing yourself to continually be happy or adopt an excessive “positive vibes” mentality, you are communicating to other people that they should not have difficult emotions around you.
Yet, working through difficulties is an important part of relationship building.
The way that you resolve conflicts or help your friends work through their stuff can help strengthen relationships in a way that nothing else can.
There are no positive aspects of toxic positivity. It’s just a convenient way to shut our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears, and ignore reality.
You may also like:
- 11 Critical Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Shut Out Your Negative Feelings
- How To Stop Running Away From Your Problems And Face Them With Courageous Resolve
- How To Comfort Someone Who Is Sad Or Crying (+ How NOT To)
- 5 Genuine Ways To Help Others In Their Time Of Need
- What It Really Means To Be Kind To Yourself: 9 Ways You Can Show Self-Kindness