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how toxic positivity works

September 26, 2021

How Toxic Positivity Works

There's a lot to be said for looking on the bright side—it helps us overcome obstacles, manage pain, and it even boosts our physical health.

But while positivity has its benefits, there are times when it's just not the best way to deal.

This article will explore toxic positivity and show you how to avoid it, so you can  live in harmony with all of your emotions—even those that make you feel uncomfortable. 

What is Toxic Positivity?

Over the past 18 months, we're sure "thinking happy thoughts" has helped you get through some tough moments. But amid lockdowns, bad news, and plenty of public anxiety, you've also been bombarded with advice. 

Advice on how to stay fit, be safe, and, more importantly, how to feel about everything that's going on. 

So, you've doubtless noticed that some kinds of advice get heavily overused, especially on social media. Whether it's in your feed or from a friend, platitudes like  "Look on the bright side"  or  "It could be worse!"  are two prime examples.

And you may have rolled your eyes. Even wondered:  Is this really the best coping advice for me right now?

The Pitfalls of Positivity

Maintaining a positive outlook can indeed be helpful, but there's a time and a place for everything. 

While most of us can't put a finger on it, it's when the positivity agenda seems forced that the line is crossed.

Toxic positivity is refusing to budge from an excessively happy, positive attitude in a way that can downplay or invalidate our negative emotions (Tufvesson, 2020, Volpe, 2021). Chances are, you might relate one of these real-life examples:

  • You've just been laid off and go to a relative for support.  "Count your blessings,"  they tell you,  "You still have a roof over your head."
  • You're feeling incredibly lonely during self-isolation, and your news feed is full of gifs and quotes.  "Happiness is a choice!"  they tell you, or  "Keep your chin up!"

Rather than being helpful (to anyone, really), toxic positivity denies the fact that we aren't programmed to live in constant happiness. In brushing off anything that isn’t sunshine, rainbows, and good vibes, it can make it much harder for us to handle the emotions that come naturally along with hardship (Quintero & Long, 2019). 

Instead of helping us overcome negative feelings to feel better, toxic positivity only makes us feel even worse. 

How it Looks: 4 Signs of Toxic Positivity

So what is it, scientifically?

While 'toxic positivity' may be a relatively new term, the coping strategy it refers to is not. 

Psychologically, we're talking about a form of emotional suppression or denial: it’s a way of 'writing off' certain emotions that we'd rather not confront, experience, or accept.

You may even have been guilty of it yourself, either inadvertently when trying to support someone or as a coping strategy in hard times.

Perhaps you've:

  1. Dismissed or minimized your own or someone else's problems  ("No biggie")
  2. Convinced yourself or someone else that you weren't angry, bitter, or sad (when you were)
  3. Made someone feel bad about being 'negative' or 'irrational,' or
  4. Sending someone one of  those  gifs instead of listening, caring, and comforting. 

How To Deal With Too Much of a Good Thing

Feeling constant pressure to 'stay positive' is exhausting, and so is trying to stay upbeat when you're dealing with quite justifiable feelings of disappointment, sadness, or anger.

Fortunately, there are more genuine ways to experience your feelings, good and bad—while still maintaining a hopeful outlook for a silver lining.

Plainly put, you can create space for your emotions when you stop feeling bad about feeling bad. 

Restore a Healthy Balance

It's more than okay to experience negative thoughts and feelings, but knowing how to act on them is the key to beating toxic positivity. 

By strengthening your emotional regulation skills, you can keep your worries in check without becoming overwhelmed or faking a happiness you don't feel.

Emotional regulation is all about acknowledging what you feel and giving yourself permission to feel that way. Managing, rather than denying or masking your feelings, makes it much easier to avoid getting overwhelmed by them.

People with strong emotional regulation skills do this very well by:

  • Noticing how they feel at a particular moment
  • Identifying and even labeling their emotions instead of trying to avoid them.
  • Recognizing them as a natural part of the human experience (we can't be happy  all  the time), and
  • Giving themselves permission to feel that way.

4 Alternatives to Toxic Positivity

Embracing unpleasant emotions doesn't come easily, but there are a few exercises that can help cultivate a more  balanced approach  to how you feel. 

Instead of telling yourself to think positive, try these emotional regulation strategies (Berking et al., 2008):

  1. Self-support:  When you're worried about something, psychologists recommend stepping into an empathetic mindset. Try to visualize yourself as someone else would see you now—in fear, upset, or disappointed—and comfort yourself. Be encouraging, soothing, and lend yourself an ear as you talk about your feelings
  2. Make acceptance your goal:  We can't learn to embrace our feelings instantly, but we can set acceptance as a worthwhile goal to work on. Note down why you'd like to commit to a healthier relationship with your negative emotions and brainstorm potential baby steps toward letting them happen naturally. With practice, you can develop your capacity to tolerate negative feelings and appreciate that  they are never permanent.
  3. Practice self-care:  Besides supporting yourself with an empathetic mindset, have some self-care strategies to draw on when you're taking the time to feel down. Take a warm bath, a relaxed stroll, or call a friend—find some lovely ways to manage the intensity of whatever you're going through until it passes organically.
  4. Journal:  If you're avoiding toxic advice from others, writing about your emotions is a great way to process them privately. If you are very uncomfortable with certain emotions, start with a non-judgmental entry. You might even want to take a scientific approach, describing your thoughts, sensations, and urges objectively. Pretty soon, you might realize they're not as unbearable as you thought.

Loneliness, sadness, and fear are all tough to deal with, but pretending they shouldn't exist only makes us more uncomfortable with our feelings. 

We can all learn to nurture healthier, more balanced relationships with our emotions while still having  hope for a brilliant future.

About The Author
Catherine Moore

Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.  

She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.



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