Toxic positivity is real: here's why you should avoid it

We all experience emotions. Some of those emotions are more enjoyable than others. Feeling sad, tired, angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed are some of the emotions most of us try to avoid. But no matter how far we push “negative” emotions down, they usually have a way of bubbling back up. That’s because emotions find a way of expressing themselves whether we like it or not. Not letting our feelings release on their own terms often results in feelings of resentment and passive-aggressiveness. The problem results when we establish a way of thinking in our mind that defines certain emotions as “good” and others as “bad”. While some feelings are more enjoyable to experience, no emotion is truly bad. 

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter what occurs, one must remain joyful. This mode of thinking stems from the idea that experiencing “bad” emotions like anger or frustration make someone unpleasant. The reality is that life can be painful. Life will not always deal us the cards we want. Forcing ourselves to be optimistic or happy despite this pain will only cause greater negative psychological effects. To process and deal with the pain we experience, we must openly communicate the way we feel- even if it means we are angry at the way our life is going. 

There’s a difference between having a positive outlook and toxic positivity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be optimistic, but when painful and disappointing situations arise, we must allow ourselves the space to process those emotions authentically. Toxic positivity negates all other valid emotions and replaces them with “good vibes”. When we engage in toxic positivity we often make those around us feel like they cannot express any other emotion than happiness. Toxic positivity forces those around us to only express happiness resulting in a stiflement and lack of growth in close relationships. 

Here are some phrases to avoid when a painful situation arises: 

  1. Just stay positive 

  2. Look on the bright side 

  3. It isn’t that bad 

  4. It could be worse 

  5. Everything happens for a reason 

  6. Choose happiness 

  7. Positive vibes only 

  8. Other people have it worse 

Here are some better phrases to validate someone’s feelings: 

  1. It’s okay not to be okay

  2. Your feelings are valid 

  3. Sometimes bad things happen for no good reason 

  4. How can I support you? 

  5. I understand why you feel that way 

  6. I’m here for you 

  7. It’s ok to quit/fail

These phrases open up a conversation to allow for all emotions, not just “good” ones. If someone is only allowing happy emotions in a friendship or relationship, step back and consider how it makes you feel. Does your relationship feel one-dimensional? Are you afraid to express your true emotions with that person? Do they make you feel shameful or guilty for being upset or stressed? Sometimes people engage in toxic positivity because they are unaware of how to express empathy. In some cases, people will use toxic positivity to gaslight, dismiss, and minimize other people. Those dealing with trauma or the loss of a loved one or job do not need to be shamed for their emotions. Instead, they need support and validation. 

If you encounter someone spreading toxic positivity, don’t be afraid to say something. Sometimes people don’t realize the impact of their words. They may have grown up in a household that only allowed space for “positive” emotions. Be gentle, but explain how their toxic positivity makes you feel. Explain how toxic positivity is harmful and minimizes emotional growth. If they refuse to understand your point of view, consider leaving the environment for a more empathetic one. 

Remember, there is nothing wrong with being optimistic. But minimizing how others feel or forcing everyone to just “look on the bright side” is harmful. We can experience multiple emotions at once. It is possible to allow space for sadness while also being optimistic. Throughout life, everyone experiences a wide range of emotions and not all of them will be happy. To live a life of growth and fulfillment we must admit to ourselves that not everyday will be one of happiness. No day is less valuable just because it lacks joy. 

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