Co-Written By Ammari Edwards, LMSW & Victoria Licandro, MSW
What is toxic positivity?
Although you may not readily know it by name, you may recognize toxic positivity when you see it—or more accurately, when you feel it. It can be found in every “turn that frown upside down,” within the musical notes of “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” in wellness influencers’ sponsored posts, and if you’re simply human like the rest of us and internalize societal messaging—you can find it in your own psyche.
While perhaps understood in essence, what is “toxic positivity” exactly? By definition, toxic positivity refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. While aspirational on the surface, this mindset can be limiting, unrealistic, and suppressive of the full human experience.
Why do we engage in toxic positivity?
Have you ever coaxed a child to smile for the camera amid a crying fit? Have you ever forcibly turned someone’s perspective to the bright side or harshly whispered to yourself, “Don’t be sad!” as a means to not think about something difficult? Have you ever double-tapped on a social media post that espoused “Good Vibes Only?” If you’ve answered “yes” to at least one of these questions, that means you have waded in the waters of toxic positivity. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not be literal about the terminology—repeating refrains that have the stench of toxic positivity does not make you toxic, or anything of the sort. That said, while not the most nefarious communication style, this brand of positivity is not necessarily an effective way to support someone, nor is it validating to the ears on which it falls. After all, advocating for a shift into a positive perspective may be received by others as dismissive, or even uncaring.
Then why do we keep spreading it? Let’s take that up with ourselves. Why are we so afraid of witnessing others’ so-called “negative” emotions like sadness, anxiety, stress, grief, and anger? It could be that we are reluctant to join them in their distress out of fear that we will get “dragged down” into it ourselves. Why would we rather make the kookiest faces, speak in an unnaturally high falsetto, and frantically wave a stuffed animal behind a camera to get a baby to smile instead of letting the baby move through their real, raw emotional experience? Let this extremely commonplace example serve as a testament to the value we, as a society, place on inauthentic happiness over authentic unhappiness. Farcical states of joy may give us a momentary, bubble-thin sense of comfort and security, but upon closer inspection: are we doing anything to soothe the underlying structure of emotional pain, or just short-circuiting it for appearance’s sake?
What are the harms of toxic positivity?
By avoiding difficult emotions, we lose valuable information about ourselves and the world around us. By way of illustration, fear may prompt us to increase our vigilance of our surroundings while wistfulness upon leaving a job mentally marks it as a meaningful experience. When we allow ourselves to identify an emotion, we can give ourselves permission to feel it, and then we can decide whether we want to avoid the dog or face the fear, so to speak. Emotions are information; therefore, cloaking “shameful” emotions behind a cape of forced, false positivity amounts to a stunting of our natural decision-making processes—ultimately, limiting ourselves.
You can’t grin and bear your way to happiness. In “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A., emotions are equated to tunnels— the only way out of them is through. Therefore, negative feelings—like all feelings—are meant to be felt, not ignored. Where do emotions go that aren’t allowed to see the light of day? They get stored in the mind and body and manifest in physical and mental health problems, they get unleashed on the unsuspected when minor inconveniences are experienced, they grow, and they haunt. At times, a person needs to bravely endure a feeling, state, or mood in order to be present, accept it, and grow.
How can I resist toxic positivity?
Understand that all emotions are acceptable and valid. Emotions are not “good” or “bad,” all positive or all negative. Instead, think of them as guidance: emotions help us make sense of things.
Take time and space to process your emotions. Unexplored emotions become more profound and burdensome as they remain unprocessed, which is unsustainable. Evolutionarily, we as humans cannot program ourselves to only feel happiness while avoiding everything outside of those parameters. Rather, paying attention and processing your emotions as they ebb and flow may promote resilience and also help you better understand yourself and those around you.
Attune to the needs of others. Emotional pain can be isolating. When you feel alongside someone—when you listen to their troubles with compassion—you can potentially close that gap of alienation. However, this may not be so simple in practice. Seeing those we care about in emotional pain is painful and being in close proximity to that pain is painful. We question if we should allow someone to wallow in their negativity or attempt to lift their spirits. Pro tip: what the person often needs is compassion—a trusted other to listen empathetically while they endure their difficulties. Attempts to redirect them toward positivity may be well intended, but may also lack compassion, tenderness, and awareness. After all, how can you truly listen to someone if you’ve already decided what they should think and feel?
Embrace the harmony of opposites. Eastern thought is credited with originating and embracing the philosophical framework of the yin and yang—the idea that seemingly contrary forces may be complementary, not conflicting, in nature. Unfortunately, the West’s obsession with positivity often forgets the need for the beauty and power of dualism of this kind. There is strength and balance in possessing a bouquet of emotions—sometimes multiple at the same time. Feeling and experiencing the bounty makes you a holistic person.
Avoid sugarcoating in therapy. Even individuals who go to therapy feel a tremendous burden in simply communicating difficult feelings to their therapists. Before entering therapy, individuals may have had many harsh life lessons teaching them to hide their full emotional truth. However, as these individuals gain trust in the therapeutic alliance, tell their therapist something a touch more difficult each time, and find acceptance in those emotions—it will become that much easier to express themselves again. As therapists, we are trained to interpret your affect, to listen to what you’re communicating, and to put that information in the context of the problem you’re working on. In sum, your emotional honesty and vulnerability is essential to your ascent.