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Toxic positivity is a real problem — here’s how to avoid the trap

15 September, 2021

A positive attitude is never a bad thing — or is it? Here, we look at some of the dangers of ‘toxic positivity’, plus share tips on how you can connect to authentic joy instead...

A napkin on a table with the words 'think positive' scribbled on top

‘Happiness is a choice.’
‘Just count your blessings.’
‘Everything happens for a reason’.
‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
‘If you think positive then there’s no limit to what you can achieve.’


Do any of these statements sound familiar? It’s likely that you’ve encountered at least one of them from a well-meaning friend or pastel-hued social media meme.


And while on the surface they might seem harmless — and in some situations, even helpful — they are all based on a questionable assumption: that positivity is always good. And what’s more, that it is always a choice.


In fact, for decades our media has bombarded us with a seemingly endless stream of self-help messages around ‘positive thinking’ and ‘having the right mindset’. Overall, the prevailing belief seems to be that an optimistic attitude is the key to success, wellbeing and lasting happiness. But is this actually wrong? After all, what could possibly be bad about looking on the bright side and having a ‘glass half full’ approach to life?


It is definitely true that in some contexts, optimism can work wonders. Yet in others the pressure to be positive can actually be hurtful, harmful and even toxic.  But what do we mean by ‘toxic positivity’ exactly? And how is it different from healthier forms of being positive? 

When optimism becomes a problem


In general, positivity just means having an optimistic attitude. And when it comes to pursuing goals, staying motivated or making life changes, this can be a real asset. However, you can also have too much of a good thing and toxic positivity is what happens when we favour sparkly rainbows over reality a little bit too much. 


In general, toxic positivity can be seen as a belief in the importance of maintaining an upbeat mindset no matter what, whether that mindset is genuinely helpful or not. This can result in the papering over of difficult situations, emotions and mental health struggles with trite solutions and platitudes.


One example would be a friend giving you the superficial advice of ‘look on the bright side’ while you are feeling down. They might mean well, but it probably does very little to help. Another would be telling a person who is going through a painful relationship breakup that there’s ‘plenty more fish in the sea’, then suggesting that they treat themselves to chocolate ice cream and bubble bath. While this might seem harmless on the surface, it becomes a problem when positivity is seen as a replacement for allowing someone to feel their feelings and face problems head on. It can also prevent the offering of genuine empathy, presence and support.


However, it is important to acknowledge that toxic positivity can also be something you do to yourself — pushing aside feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt, shame, fear or anger in favour of surface-level optimism. Examples of this could be reading constant self-help books rather than doing the deeper work of therapy or self-exploration, or repeating constant positive affirmations that you don’t really believe deep down.


Either way, toxic positivity is a method of burying, dismissing or invalidating difficult feelings and situations, whether intentionally or not. At its worst, it can even be a form of ‘gaslighting’, in other words, a tool used to distort a person’s sense of reality..


The marginalising effects of the positivity push


Added to this, this poisoned form of optimism can also end up minimising the very real challenges of having a mental health issue, for instance, by claiming that any problem can be overcome with the ‘right attitude’. It can also result in an ableist worldview that shames people with depression for not being able to be upbeat every day and people with anxiety for sometimes feeling overwhelmed with tasks. Additionally, people dealing with trauma, addiction, eating issues or a host of other life challenges may simply not be able to jump on board the positivity train whenever they please.


Worryingly, the toxic positivity worldview can also be used to deny the economic and social reality that many marginalised people and groups face, for instance, by making sweeping statements like ‘anyone can make it big in life if you just put your mind to it.’ And while there are indeed ‘rags to riches’ individuals out there, this trite philosophy denies the huge issues of discrimination, isolation and ecomomic inequality faced by many. Yet these relentless messages on social media can trigger guilt and shame in people who feel that they aren’t ‘succeeding’.


Toxic positivity also showed up heavily during the beginning of the first Coronavirus lockdown, where a chirpy ‘bake banana bread and carry on’ message seemed to saturate social media. Not only was this message highly privileged, but it had the effect of severely marginalising anyone who felt angry, sad or scared, or who was facing huge challenges like social isolation, mental health breakdowns or job loss. Worse still, some people were made to feel that there was something ‘wrong’ with them for not being able to adopt a cheery attitude to a shattering global crisis.


But now that we know what toxic positivity is, how can we be mindful of it in our own lives, whether it’s coming from others or from ourselves?


How to spot toxic positivity


According to author and educational psychologist Kendra Cherry, toxic positivity has the following key traits:


  • Feeling guilty for having ‘negative’ emotions such as sadness or anger.
  • Using socially acceptable ‘feel-good’ statements instead of expressing your real feelings, or just hiding your feelings in general.
  • Brushing off your problems instead of facing them. 
  • Minimising other people’s feelings because you don’t know how to deal with them (this could include replying with platitudes or telling them to ‘be strong’ or that ‘it will all work out’).
  • Shaming others for not having a positive attitude.

And psychotherapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman, author of the forthcoming book, Toxic Positivity, sees it this way: ‘Toxic positivity is when we meet somebody with a platitude, advice or a statement, and it leaves them feeling like they don't have room to be vulnerable, explain themselves or share how they're feeling...this might be when somebody comes to you with a problem and you say, “Come on, it's not that bad. Get over it...everything's gonna be fine.'"


Overall, the main difference that Goodman sees between positive platitudes and genuinely supportive statements is that the latter leave room for people to be vulnerable and express their emotions openly. Genuinely supportive conversations also validate feelings of fear, negativity and hopelessness as normal, which can be very affirming for a person in pain.


The dangers of toxic positivity


It is important to remember that toxic positivity is more than just an irritating t-shirt slogan or unicorn meme — it can also negatively impact our wellbeing, mental health and even relationships.  Some effects of forcing toxic positivity onto yourself — or having it forced onto you by others — include:


1. It can make you bury your feelings

This is because toxic positivity sends out the message that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to feel, which can push you into adopting a superficial type of ‘happiness’. However, the problem is that when you don’t feel or process difficult feelings and experiences, they don’t just disappear. Instead, they remain buried and can often show up in your life in other ways, such as trauma symptoms, addiction, rage attacks, relationship issues, or mental and physical health problems.


2. It can trigger guilt and shame

As mentioned, one aspect of toxic positivity is the claim you are always in control of your feelings and that you can somehow ‘make’ yourself feel happy by ‘switching your mindset’. However, human beings aren’t robots and can’t steer their feelings at will, no matter how much they might want to. But the result is that when someone can’t force themselves to feel joy and is overwhelmed by sadness instead, they may see themselves as ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’. They might also fear that they will somehow fail in life as they don’t have a ‘winning attitude’.


3. It can isolate you 

If people close to you are responding to your problems with bland platitudes, then this could make you feel lonely and abandoned. It may even cause you to shut down completely and turn to coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol instead. Of course, it’s not that people are necessarily saying these things to be uncaring — they may just have never learned how to hold space for other people’s emotions, as this might not have been modelled to them in childhood. However, these reactions deny you the real, deep connections and support that you might need. And likewise, if you are feeding upbeat platitudes to yourself instead of practicing things like self-soothing, then this can result in similar issues.


4. It can cause you to avoid facing problems

The toxic positivity philosophy implies that there aren’t any ‘real’ problems, that it’s all just about your perspective and attitude. While there may be a kernel of truth in this view at times, the danger is that it can cause you to bury your head in the sand about things that you actually need to deal with. An example would be repeating ‘I am rich’ affirmations when you are struggling with debt, instead of making a budget plan. 


5. It can lead to serious wellbeing issues

The need to constantly be positive can cause all sorts of problems related to mental and emotional health. For instance, people with obsessive compulsive tendencies may feel a need to constantly repeat positive affirmations, to the point where they feel trapped and stressed. Other people might find themselves endlessly consuming motivational materials as a way of avoiding feelings of pain, loneliness and disconnection. Toxic positivity movements can also make people vulnerable to predatory gurus, or to staying in abusive romantic relationships as they believe that they can somehow fix things with the ‘right thinking’. 


6. It can stop you from growing 

When we bury painful experiences and feelings instead of facing them, we are unable to learn from them and integrate them into our lives. And when we don’t learn, we don’t grow. Instead we can end up stuck in the positivity bubble, with unresolved grief, loss and confusion hidden deep inside of us.


How to avoid the toxic positivity trap


If you have been influenced by the toxic positivity worldview then that’s very understandable, as sometimes it can be hard to avoid. But if you feel that it is causing you harm or distress, then here are some ways to counteract it:


1. Make space for all of your feelings

If you have got into the habit of labelling some of your more difficult emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, then aim to create room for them in your life instead. This could be as simple as keeping a daily journal, giving yourself permission to cry, or talking honestly about your worries or fears with a trusted friend. It could also be as simple as trying to name any emotions when they come up or placing your hand on where they seem to be in your body.


Also, aim to develop a more supportive and validating way of talking to yourself about your feelings. So for example, rather than telling yourself ‘I’m selfish for being so angry at my friend for cancelling our meetup at the last minute yet again. Why can’t I be more chilled out about these things?’, try telling yourself ‘It’s totally normal for me to feel angry when a friend keeps letting me down. It’s also healthy to let myself feel this anger fully. But I’ll wait until I feel a little calmer before chatting to her about this.’


Or instead of telling yourself ‘I can’t believe I’m still feeling sad about my ex. Why can’t I just get over it? I’m pathetic’ try telling yourself, ‘It’s okay for me to feel sad about losing someone important to me. I’m just going to sit with these feelings and let myself grieve and cry if I need to. I’m going to give myself all the time that I need.’


By doing this, feelings like anger, fear or sadness will start to seem less fearsome or threatening and will instead become useful signposts that show you what you need to explore. You will also begin to see that when you are able to release difficult emotions, you also create space for deeper, richer experiences of happiness, joy and love.


2. Make space for other people’s feelings

Where appropriate — and if it feels safe to you — try to take the time to simply listen to a loved one’s problems and validate their feelings rather than aiming to solve them or make them feel better. Examples of supportive things to say could be ‘I’m here for you’, ‘you can share any of your feelings with me’, ‘this is such a tough situation’.  And if you find that their emotions are making you feel uncomfortable, then try to observe this too rather than escaping from the conversation (that said, it is also completely okay to exercise boundaries if you’re feeling overwhelmed or unsafe).


Overall, tuning into others can be really useful, as in learning to be present and hold space for their feelings we can get better at doing the same thing for ourselves.


3. See a therapist

There are various kinds of therapy that can support you in developing a more positive worldview in a way that is healthy and integrative.


These include CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which can help you to let go of unhelpful ways of thinking, and mindfulness therapy, which is about staying present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Also ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) teaches you how to observe and accept painful feelings rather than seeing them as wrong, while CFT (compassion-focused therapy) focuses on how to be kinder to yourself and others. 


And if you feel that toxic positivity culture has caused you to bury painful or traumatic experiences from the past, then EMDR and body-focused therapies can help you to process these safely. 


4. Be mindful of your media diet 

Bit of a self-help addict? There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you feel that you’re learning positive life skills in the process.


However, if your Instagram, Facebook and even bookshelves are filled with constant ‘positivity cheerleading’ then maybe it’s time to take a break from it all? Because sometimes, it is the over-saturation of optimistic messaging that turns true positivity into its toxic evil twin. 


Instead, you could use your time to reconnect with any old interests, hobbies and passions that you feel drawn to again. Because by entering into the ‘flow state’ of these pursuits, you might find yourself accessing a deeper, more authentic kind of joy.


5. Put concrete plans in place for dealing with problems

Facing up to tricky stuff is a lot easier said than done. But whether it is a rocky romantic relationship or problems at work, it usually takes a bit more than positivity to solve a real problem. So if there’s an issue in your life that you don’t feel you’re fully facing, then take time to make a list of practical steps you can take.


Taking a positive approach to life can be a good thing, but it should never be at the expense of ignoring feelings or reality. Because while toxic positivity is a denial of pain, true positivity actively embraces it. And by allowing difficult feelings a place at the table you will not only be showing kindness to yourself, but you will also find it easier to support others too.


Struggling with the effects of toxic positivity or other wellbeing issues? Therapy can help you to work through it all. Connect with an accredited MTA therapist today for an in-person, video or live chat appointment. 

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