Toxic positivity can be described as a “positive thoughts only” approach to life. It is the belief that no matter what a person is going through they should maintain a positive mindset. This is different to being an optimist. They tend to be hopeful and confident about the future. Toxic positivity however denies any emotion that isn’t positive or happy.

It is well known that having a positive outlook can be good for your mental health. Being positive can help you to build resilience which helps you to bounce back when things go wrong. However, having a forced and fake positive facade can actually be harmful both to your own mental health and the mental health of those around you.

Life has its ups and downs and denying the impact of the downs with platitudes such as “look on the bright side” or “just keep smiling” can prevent people from getting the emotional help and support that they need to deal with their situation. While phrases like those above are often said with the best of intentions, or because the people saying them are unsure of what else to say so fall back on these trite platitudes, they can actually result in the person who is going through a hard time feeling like their emotions are being dismissed or invalidated by the person that they are speaking to. This may stop them from sharing their thoughts and feelings in future as they fear being ignored or having their feelings belittled again. This can have unfortunate consequences as they bottle things up inside while trying to cope with their unhappy thoughts and feelings alone.

Additionally, telling someone that they should try to be more positive can be harmful as it may result in them feeling ashamed or guilty because they cannot control their feelings. This can affect both the person who is being told “chin up, it could be worse” and the person who says it as they can end up internalising the same harmful idea that anything less than constant positivity is a sign of failure and therefore unacceptable. This creates a cycle where everyone can end up dismissing or denying their own negative emotions and as a result do not seek help and support from their family and friends when they experience them. Refusing to accept or face negative emotions means that we prevent ourselves from growing emotionally as we’re unwilling to face challenging feelings that would ultimately allow us to experience emotional growth and gain a deeper insight into ourselves.

Toxic positivity can present itself in several different ways:

  • You may feel that you should “get over” difficult emotions or have a stiff upper lip.
  • You dismiss or minimise other people’s emotions or feelings because you don’t know how to cope with them.
  • You always maintain a positive façade.
  • You feel ashamed if you have negative emotion or even shame other people who are expressing negative thoughts or emotions.

Moving from toxic positivity to tragic optimism

Bad times in life are unavoidable; we all experience loss, grief, sadness, vulnerability, jealousy and all sorts of ‘bad vibes’ at some point in our lives. Acknowledging these feelings as they arise isn’t detrimental to your overall happiness, in fact, acknowledging that these feelings and some circumstances are inevitable can help you to live more fully and freely. So, if you are recognising your own behaviour in that list then don’t worry, there are some simple things that you can do to tackle your own toxic positivity.

Give yourself permission to feel and express all of your emotions and feelings

Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel all of your emotions and feelings without shutting yourself down and shaming yourself. Your feelings are valid and you need to find a way to express them in a productive way. Journaling can be a great way of processing your feelings as writing them down can often help you to express and process them. The same thing happens when you open up to a supportive friend.

Expect that different situations will produce different feelings

Realise and embrace that it is a normal reaction to feel stressed or worried if something upsetting happens. Try focusing on ways in which you can improve the situation and take care of yourself rather than on trying to subdue your feelings.

These things apply to your interactions with other people as well

Remember that their feelings are valid and important too and rather than uttering toxic statements such as “it could be worse” try saying something like “I’m listening. How can I help?”

Toxic positivity can often sneak into our lives unnoticed through interactions with friends, the way our parents taught us to respond to adversity, or even through the “positive quotes” on social media. Once you start to recognise it then you are in a position to tackle it in your own life and can stop yourself from helping to perpetuate the toxic positivity culture that modern life encourages.

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