Toxic Positivity and What Does It Mean?
What is Toxic Positivity?
“Good vibes only. Just stay positive. Look on the bright side!” We have all heard these comments before when going through a difficult time, but what do they really mean and are they helpful? While these statements likely have good intentions, this can often lead to individuals feeling like they are not allowed to have painful emotions. These are examples of toxic positivity, which is the belief that someone should be happy and remain positive even in painful circumstances. This approach to life essentially denies all unpleasant emotions.
Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?
This is unhelpful because pain is an inevitable part of life, and suffering is a universal human experience. When difficult events occur people may feel sad, angry, scared, or worried. Toxic positivity minimizes and invalidates these basic human emotions. It is important to allow oneself the space to feel these emotions. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions can be harmful and perpetuate one’s suffering. This is because pretending to feel happy all the time or dismissing unpleasant feelings, is incongruent with one’s authentic human experience. As a result, this can lead to the belief that our emotions are not valid, feelings of shame, and prevent growth. Feeling our genuine emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, is an important part of being able to process our emotions, learn about ourselves, and grow.
How to Avoid Using Toxic Positivity
If you find yourself in situations where someone is coming to you for support, here are some examples of statements you can use instead of falling into the cycle of toxic positivity:
When friends or loved ones come to you to share about a challenging situation, you may find yourself having the urge to say “Just stay positive! Things will get better soon.” A lot of times when people say something like this, their intention is to try to make the person feel better. However, it unintentionally shuts down any opportunity for the individual to express their painful emotions. A more helpful response would be one that allows space for the person to share more about what they are going through. An example of a more helpful response is “That must be really difficult” or “This really sucks right now. How can I support you?”
Both alternative responses involve the use of empathy, which helps people to feel understood. Empathy can also help foster trust and healing within a relationship. Another common factor of both responses is that they validate the person’s experience. Validation helps people feel cared for, heard, and accepted.
Below you can find some more examples of alternative statements utilizing validation and empathy:
Instead of: Good Vibes Only!
Say:Your feelings are valid
Instead of: Everything happens for a reason.
Say: This seems really painful. I’m here for you.
Instead of: It could be worse.
Say: That sounds really hard.
Instead of: Think happy thoughts!
Say: It’s okay to feel sad. Tell me more about it. How can I help you?
Positive Thinking and Acceptance of Emotions
It’s important to note, that there are certainly benefits to positive thinking. This does not mean that we should completely avoid positivity. It is totally okay to think positive thoughts and make encouraging statements toward yourself and others. Positivity only becomes toxic when it is dismissive of unpleasant emotions. Genuine positivity looks like acceptance of all emotions. Feeling all emotions ranging from sadness to happiness is a part of being human. It is okay to take time to feel. It is okay and helpful to allow yourself the space to feel the sadness or worry. However, with toxic positivity being so prevalent, this is something that is easy to forget at times. It is common for people to get caught up in their own cycle of toxic positivity when it comes to self-talk. If you have ever found yourself saying, “I should be happy right now,” instead try reminding yourself that all feelings are valid and it’s okay to not be okay.