29 Mar Toxic Positivity; It’s okay to not be okay (during a pandemic and always)
Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych
“Good vibes only”
“At least you….”
“Everything will work out”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“It could be worse”
“Just be grateful”
“Look on the bright side”
These phrases are probably familiar to most of us. We probably seem them on our social media feeds and we’ve probably said most of them to ourselves or somebody else at some point. At first glance, they seem pretty harmless and maybe even helpful. But, if we look a little closer, we will eventually discover something is amiss with these statements, and that something is the topic of today’s post: toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of the principles of positive psychology to disallow suffering. “
Positive psychology focuses on helping people to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives and to cultivate positive experiences in love, work, and play. It is a legitimate field and research has shown that positive psychology practices, such as practicing gratitude, can be beneficial. However, somewhere along the way, the nuanced concepts of positive psychology have been oversimplified into “just be positive and you won’t experience suffering”.
So, what’s the problem with being positive and when does it become toxic?
First, toxic positivity attempts to silence a part of the human experience. It is a part of our common humanity that we will all suffer and that this is a natural part of life. Sometimes life is hard. It’s harder for some than for others (this is where privilege comes in), but it’s hard for everyone at times. By denying this, we deny the genuine human experience, and this backfires. Any attempt to avoid or silence the inevitable suffering that is part of the human experience will backfire.
The truth is that we all experience the full range of emotions and any attempt to suppress or silence them just keeps us stuck and makes us feel worse. Suppressing our emotions is like trying to hold a giant inflatable ball under water. It takes a lot of effort and doesn’t leave space for us to do much else. Allowing and accepting a full range of experiences and emotions is what allows us to lead a full and robust life. We have to leave some room for the bad.
The most common way I have seen this pattern show up recently, particularly during the pandemic, is through toxic gratitude. Many people I speak with are stuck in a trap of thinking that because they are privileged in some way (or many ways), they must only be grateful and are not allowed to suffer. The result is that they end up denying their own human needs and pain. We should absolutely acknowledge our privilege (not to mention work to dismantle the systems that create it, but I digress) and be grateful for our blessings. But, we miss the mark when we assume that privilege or gratitude will cancel out our suffering.
Gratitude can give us perspective, but perspective will never cancel out our emotions because they are normal and natural.
I encourage my clients to use the word “AND” to remind themselves that feelings are not mutually exclusive. For example, I can feel grateful for the blessings in my life AND feel sad today.
Second, toxic positivity contributes to disconnection. This is important because connection is one of the core components of a fulfilling life. When we deny our authentic experiences, we lose connection with ourselves and begin to feel shame, both of which disrupt our connections with others. Toxic positivity can also show up in our interactions with others. Have you ever gone to someone to share something difficult and had them respond with a trite, invalidating comment such as “just think positive” or “it could be worse”? How did you feel? My guess is you felt unseen, unheard, and lonely in your experience of suffering. And it probably made you less likely to open up to that person again. While the intention behind these messages is usually good, that doesn’t change the fact that they are unhelpful. They imply that only positive experiences are allowed within that relationship, which can lead to only showing certain parts of yourself within the relationship.
Genuine connection is found is showing your whole self, so these relationships often end up not fulfilling our need for connection.
One of the main criticisms of positive psychology is that it is culturally biased and fails to acknowledge oppression, marginalization, poverty, and inequity. So it’s not a surprise that positive psychology’s extremist cousin, toxic positivity, fails in the same way. Beyond being dismissive, a toxic positivity approach to issues of inequity does nothing to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it. Toxic positivity can also have a victim blaming effect, through implying that it’s an individual’s fault if they can’t figure out how to be happy, without acknowledging the very real systemic issues contributing to their suffering.
So, how can you learn to step away from toxic positivity and toward authentically responding to life and to the full range of human experiences?
- Learn to tolerate the tough stuff, both in yourself and others. When we apply toxic positivity in our relationships with others, it’s often because we struggle to tolerate the emotions they are sharing. Becoming more skilled in acknowledging and feeling emotions will help you to support others more effectively, in addition to yourself.
- You can also work on phrases you can use with yourself and others that are more empathic and validating.
- I also recommend being on the lookout for messages of toxic positivity that will tempt you into toxic positivity patterns, so that you’re not tempted to engage.
- Finally, always remember: it’s okay not to be okay.
Click here for information on counselling services at Monarch Psychology.