What the Heck is Toxic Positivity?

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Toxic positivity refers to being positive at all costs, no matter the situation.

Okay….that sounds alright, doesn’t it? Isn’t it good to think positively?

Yes, positive thinking can be very useful overall. But when people are going through challenges and hardships, it’s not possible to be positive or upbeat all the time. Nor would we want to, as it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of our feelings. No one feels great all the time. Pretending to feel great all the time just masks our true emotions which will resurface at some point anyway. Because that’s what emotions do. We can only push them down or suppress them for so long.

Then they rise up and overpower us.

I remember one friend of mine from years ago who literally wouldn’t or couldn’t empathize with me on anything. She never validated how I felt, which ultimately made me feel as if my emotions weren’t legitimate. Her inability to relate to me left me feeling I needed to continue talking about what was bothering me, as I didn’t feel she truly understood. But her response was always the same. It was a vicious cycle. In hindsight and knowing more now than I did back then, I realize she was just more of a “logical thinker” who didn’t let emotions get in the way of situations and decisions, whereas I was clearly more of an “emotional thinker.”

My conversations with my friend might have sounded a bit like this: 

Person 1: “I feel so overwhelmed. My partner and I aren’t getting along right now and that’s created a lot of tension in the house. I haven’t been sleeping well. Things are shitty at work and I just don’t know what to do about anything.”

Person 2: “But you have so much to be thankful for. You have a loving partner, a good job, etc. So many people don’t have any of that. You’re actually so lucky.”

Person 1: “Yeah, I do feel thankful for everything I have. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have challenges. Right now things are really tough. I’m just scared and I don’t know what to do.”

Person 2: “Well, a negative attitude doesn’t help anything. Just think positive. Focusing on the negatives only makes things worse.”

Person 1: “I don’t think I am focusing on the negatives. I’ve said I’m thankful for what I have. I’m just struggling right now. Some compassion would help.”

Person 2: “What if you tried to look at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty?”

Person 1: “You know what? I think I’m done with this conversation. I don’t feel heard.”

You can see how toxic positivity hasn’t allowed for a real connection. Person 1 likely feels invalidated and potentially more frustrated that Person 2 can’t understand or empathize with how they feel. Person 2 may believe they’re actually helping by trying to focus the conversation on the positives.

I want to acknowledge, however, that exercises such as reframing your thoughts are not what I mean by toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is invalidating and lacks compassion by not acknowledging how a person really feels and by expecting them to “smile through it.”

Reframing and challenging our thoughts is part of the process of rewiring our brain in an effort to be kinder to ourselves. For example, I’ve had many clients refer to themselves as “lazy.” They might say something like “I’ve been sleeping so much lately; I’m so lazy.” A reframe of that statement might be “why does my body need so much rest lately? What’s going on for me that I’m so tired?” It takes the negative judgment out of the statement and reframes it to either a neutral or a more positive viewpoint.

So reframing and challenging our thoughts is very different than toxic positivity. Below is some useful information from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) about toxic positivity. (https://mentalhealthweek.ca/when-positivity-turns-toxic-and-4-ways-to-combat-it/).

Here are some signs that positivity has turned toxic:

  • You dismiss or brush off feelings that aren’t “positive”
  • You feel guilt or shame for experiencing “negative” emotions
  • You’re avoiding or hiding from uncomfortable feelings
  • You only focus on the positive aspects of a painful situation

Another face of toxic positivity is what could be called compulsory happiness. It is the expectation that we are cheerful and upbeat regardless of what we’re really feeling. It’s the idea that showing up with a smile is polite, and that your personal hardships and difficult feelings should be kept to yourself.

Many of us have learned to swallow feelings of sadness, fear, and anger. To keep calm and carry on. But when it comes to emotions, here are four good reasons to name it, not numb it:

1. Suppressing unpleasant feelings can lead to poor mental and physical health

When you ignore an uncomfortable feeling, it doesn’t just disappear into thin air. It might just build up beneath the surface and increase stress. In fact, studies show that suppressing emotions can lead to increased anxiety and depression, disrupted sleep, and overall worsening of mental health.

Suppressing uncomfortable emotions might feel like the easiest way forward, but it can actually make them last longer. By accepting the discomfort and understanding your feelings, you can begin to work through the stressors and heal from them.

2. Blind optimism can actually be dangerous

Emotions aren’t just things that happen to us. They are sent from our bodies and mind to deliver important information. It’s how we understand and evaluate life’s events. Feelings of fear, sadness, and anger might not be the easiest feelings to experience, but they exist to guide us. By always looking on the bright side, we block out useful information that can help us navigate life. 

Yes, optimism can give us hope, but blind optimism can be problematic.

Take studying for a big test as an example. Being optimistic about the outcome is bound to relieve stress and help you focus on the test. But hoping for great results without studying or understanding the material will set you up for failure.

It’s not to say that everyone should live their life seeing the glass as half empty, but avoiding unpleasant emotions at all costs doesn’t do us any favors.

3. Pain is part of the human experience

It may not always be comfortable, but most of us have experienced grief, frustration, sorrow, and danger, as well as the more pleasant emotions. It’s healthy to experience a range of emotions. In fact, it’s an important part of the human experience. It’s natural to feel grief when experiencing a loss, and it’s natural to feel frustrated after weeks and months of pandemic lockdown. As human beings, it’s near impossible to avoid unpleasant emotions Life is full of ups and downs, bumps in the road, and obstacles to overcome.

Feelings of sadness, fear, and anger are necessary to truly connect with one another. We simply cannot empathize and fully support others if we shy away from anything but happiness.

Uncomfortable feelings help us make sense of life events. Emotions guide us in decision making, help us develop empathy, and above all else, emotions are simply necessary for survival. Fear helps us avoid dangerous situations, anger can help us confront the uncomfortable, and grief can help us see what’s most important to us.

Even emotions that are sometimes referred to as “negative” are incredibly important to living a healthy life. They encourage self-reflection and can even be a catalyst for social change.

4. Compulsory happiness upholds oppression

If everyone is looking on the bright side, nobody is raising concerns about racism, misogyny, homophobia, or other social injustices. The quest for social justice can be powered by anger, fear, and discomfort. After all, if everyone were happy all the time, nobody would feel motivated to make positive changes in the system.

By asking people to smile through the pain of discrimination and oppression, we are also asking them to ignore the injustices they face. If we want to promote positive change, we must create space in our society for anger, grief, fear, and pain in general.

So…you can see that toxic positivity has many negative consequences. People need to feel that others are listening and can relate to what they’re going through. I will leave you with this quote that I think is quite fitting: “People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” – Cheryl Richardson

Amber Fortowsky RSW, BSW

Amber has been a practicing social worker in Saskatoon since 2008. She has worked in the non-profit sector as well as with the Saskatchewan Health Authority in various roles. She also spent several years working in the area of Mental Health and Addictions.

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