woman holding up portraits of herself in different emotional states because of toxic positivity

How To Avoid The Danger Of Toxic Positivity

9 mins

Relentlessly seeing the good in every situation – no matter how bad – is stifling genuine relationships and destroying our self-esteem and culture. Conquer toxic positivity with these expert tips

Samantha was putting on a brave face – literally. Before work, she applied plenty of concealer to hide her sleepless night, blusher to give her pale complexion some colour and waterproof mascara in case the inevitable tears happened. The legal secretary had just been dumped by her fiancé, and was hoping for some sympathy, and maybe even a hug, from her friends in the office. 

But instead of clucks of empathy, she was met with a barrage of toxic positivity. ‘You were always too good for him,’ said one colleague while another urged: ‘Get your “glow up” and show him what he’s missing.’ A chorus of ‘these things happen for a reason,’ followed. By the end of the day, Samantha, 31, was worn down by having to fake a smile as she was told: ‘Single life’s so much more fun, anyway. Who needs a man to tie you down?’ 

Not one of her colleagues, or friends out of work, understood how truly heartbroken she was about losing the man she’d loved for the past five years or the fear of facing a future on her own. 

But Samantha’s not alone. Scroll through social media and you’ll be hit by a barrage of over-the-top messages extolling us to have ‘good vibes only,’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy’ and to cheer up no matter how traumatised or upset we are. ‘Hey, at least you’re lucky to be alive!’ you’re sure to be told even though you’re going through a break-up, job loss, family or money problems. Welcome to the world of toxic positivity – a pervasive issue wreaking havoc in modern society. 

Toxic Positivity

The relentless pretence of being happy is undermined and stifling genuine human connections and destroying self esteem

This destructive phenomenon is quite simply a relentless pretence of being happy which while sounding benign is actually undermining and stifling genuine human connections, destroying self-esteem and destroying workplace and popular culture.

It happens when it’s awkward to address what’s really happening so positive messages are said to avoid getting down to the nitty-gritty. This creates pressure to be unrealistically optimistic without considering the true circumstances of the situation. Toxic positivity can be the belief that no matter how bad a situation is, people should always put on a happy – or brave – face and see the good in everything and anything that has happened.

Suppressing real emotions can add to the stress you experience. Unaddressed stress tends to linger in the body where it can contribute to diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure and heart problems

Flippant remarks such as ‘you’ll get through this,’ and ‘smile, crying won’t help,’ can put an excessive and unhealthy emphasis on being positive, and negate negative emotions, while avoiding discussing, or even acknowledging the situation altogether.

And it’s dangerous as it can create alienation and a sense of disconnection. The struggles don’t disappear, instead they are buried, likely to resurface at a later date. ‘Toxic positivity cheapens the human experience and makes us feel invalid for falling into ‘the wrong’ binary state,’ says New York psychotherapist, Alice Rizzi. ‘It can bring on shame that you are ‘flawed’ or ‘broken’ if you don’t happen to think positive thoughts all the time – which is impossible, by the way. We’re just not hard wired that way.”

Toxic positivity can take on many forms, too. A family member might chastise you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. Maybe a friend repeatedly posts how productive they’re being on social media, despite how times are hard. Even your own feelings can cause toxic positivity, telling yourself not to dwell on being sad, anxious, lonely or afraid.

With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Happiness is compulsively pushed. And the outcome? Authentic human emotional experiences are denied.

Reel Vs Real 

The instagram age has filled our scrolling downtime with reels of self-help, from down-to-earth life coaches to wellness gurus to celebrities and that-mom-posting-from-her-car. It seems everybody has advice on how to live your best life, look on the bright side and be full of gratitude and love. In a world where there’s so much pain and hate, especially now with so much conflict and war, it’s wonderful to watch an uplifting reel (with a trending Cardi B hit, obviously). 

We are encouraged to grit our teeth and grin through life and, for a swift hit of dopamine, it works. We are so on the same page as that-mom-posting-from-her-car. We tap to follow that celeb who just says-it-how-it-is. We’re not alone. We’re invincible…Until we realise that a lost hour down the rabbit hole of social media has not cured us of our worries at all. 

If anything, it’s made them worse and all that positive motivation has invited bundles of extra negativity into our space. That’s because your very real problems are unique to you. A mom-fluencer in Texas can’t solve them. Neither can those hilarious buddies with the cutting-edge podcast. 

Irritating Insta-inspiration

redhead woman with face covered by happy emoji because of toxic posivity on social media
Insta-inspiration that is forcing us to suppress our real emotions and act happy is doing long-term damage

While it might momentarily feel good to hear ‘women supporting women’ and that ‘we’re all in this together’ online, in reality it’s creating a vacuous aftermath of downward spiralling feelings once we put down our smartphone. In reality, this constant Insta-inspiration is forcing us to act happy instead of allowing us to feel what we’re really feeling.

Career coach Luciana Paulise believes that emotions – even if they’re negative – contain important information about what we need and guide us make changes that can help us in the long term. ‘Being unrealistically optimistic can lead to denying or invalidating people’s feelings and experiences, making it difficult for them to process and cope with difficult emotions,’ she says.

Toxic positivity is invalidating the real hardships people face during a specific time in their lives. Baltimore-based psychotherapist, Carolyn Karoll, saw a rise in people affected by toxic positivity during the pandemic.

‘Putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment for many,’ she says. ‘The pressure to be productive leaves many, if not most people, feeling inadequate and ashamed that they are simply trying to make it through the day without a panic attack or crying spell. And yet, social media was flooded with messages about how to take advantage of quarantine: “Start a side hustle! Be productive! Learn how to cook! Make banana bread!”’

Toxic positivity is often described as gaslighting yourself – and underlying it is the sense that someone, somewhere, is trying to sell you something. Why wouldn’t you buy from someone who tells you that everything about you should be glorified on high?

In this digital age, we are turning to online content in abundance for information, help and support rather than seeking real-life meaningful interactions with friends, family, or even experts. In addition to hearing clichéd toxic positivity in every day chit chat, we also watch it on designed-to-engage social media platforms.

If you’ve just lost your job, being told to see it as a ‘blessing in disguise’ shuts down your true devastating experience. After suffering a type of loss, seeing quotes about ‘things happening for a reason’ might seem comforting initially but it’s also a way of avoiding pain.

A particularly strong message currently trending is how ‘happiness is a choice’, suggesting that a person’s disappointment or sadness is their own fault and they can simply ‘choose’ to be happy. What happens if a woman is being mentally abused by her husband or bullied at work? Is she expected to think, ‘well, others have it worse…’? Therapist Beatty Cohan says that toxic positivity: ‘keeps us in a world of illusion and fantasy and inevitably harms our physical, emotion and mental wellbeing.’

The rise in positivity movements – over our bodies, mental health, being single or even dying – has ramped up in the last few years. Ironically, it has made mourning or feeling down about a break-up a no-no. Instead of sympathy, TikTok will offer you ‘end of relationship party ideas’ and ‘revenge makeover inspiration.’

Journalist Pravin Rudra wrote about the gaslighting properties of toxic positivity for The New Statesman and believes this constant self-celebration has come at the cost of celebrating or respecting others.

‘The problem with exaggerated celebration is that it doesn’t work,’ she wrote. ‘When Pinterest bombards you with twee quotes about how ageing is a ‘PRIVILEGE’, you feel guilty for experiencing a normal human reaction to, say, having to confront death. It feels hollow when a friend suggests you were dumped because you were ‘too wonderful’ for him.

‘So-called toxic positivity is often described as gaslighting yourself – and underlying it is the sense that someone, somewhere is trying to sell you something. Why wouldn’t you buy from someone who tells you that everything about you should be glorified on high?’

How Toxic Is Toxic Positivity?

It can:

  • Dismiss feelings – making us feel ignored or outright invalidated
  • Be shaming – telling us our emotions are unacceptable
  • Cause guilt – and we feel like a burden
  • Prevent growth – because we avoid pain, denying ourselves the ability to face challenges that can ultimately lead to deeper insight
  • Be gaslighting – creating a false narrative of reality, causing us to question what we think and feel. 

Stress & Suppression 

The National Library of Medicine ran a 12-year study which suggests a link between emotional suppression and risk of early death. Suppressing emotions can add to the stress you experience. Unaddressed stress tends to linger in the body where it can contribute to diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure and heart problems. These concerns can affect long-term health and longevity, especially without treatment. 

How To Avoid Being Toxic 

You can provide positive support to someone struggling without being toxic. But how? Be authentic. Avoid using clichés that may not be relevant or helpful. Be real. Let them be real. And be non-judgmental. Accept that it’s OK to experience negative feelings without forcing positivity. We should encourage expression, not hinder it. As author Bob Burg said: ‘Sometimes, the most influential thing we can do is listen.’

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