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A positive attitude is associated with a lot of benefits, including better heart health, increased productivity, greater success with overcoming addiction and improved relationships. For many people, cutting down on negative self-talk and making an effort to cultivate an optimistic outlook is key to success and physical and mental wellness.
That said, there can be a fine line between “positive thinking” and “toxic positivity.” While a generally positive outlook is beneficial, taking on the belief that everyone should maintain a rosy, “everything-happens-for-a-reason” attitude, regardless of circumstances, is superficial and unrealistic. Labeling certain emotions as good and desirable and others as bad and meant to be avoided is damaging can harm relationships and prevent meaningful connections.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
At its core, toxic positivity is the obsession with positive thinking. It’s the belief that people should always see experiences in an optimistic light. Rather than acknowledging and normalizing difficult emotions, toxic positivity denies and dismisses them.
Toxic optimism takes on a lot of forms. For example, when someone loses their job and is forced to relocate from a region with a lot of social and emotional connections, well-meaning friends may tell them to “stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” A couple experiencing a miscarriage may hear that everything happens for a reason and that at least they can have more children; or, someone receiving a bleak medical diagnosis may be told that they’ll pull through.
Negative positivity denies emotions and can shame the individual experiencing the hardship. At its best, it can make the individual feel shut down and misunderstood. At its worst, toxic positivity can create feelings of shame and isolation.
What Is the Source of Negative Positivity?
On the surface, being overly positive may look like a good thing. Many people are able to look back on challenging circumstances that led to new opportunities or scary medical diagnoses with good outcomes. They may feel that their own life experience is relevant to someone else’s situation and want to draw a connection in hopes of providing comfort.
Beneath the surface, toxic positivity may come from being uncomfortable with difficult topics. The loss of a loved one, scary medical diagnoses and financial difficulties are hard to talk about. It’s much easier to simply dismiss the topic and refuse to engage, whether consciously or subconsciously. Toxic positivity provides a polite, socially acceptable way to shut down what could be an uncomfortable conversation.
The Dangers of Toxic Optimism
While “good vibes only” may seem like a nice idea, it leaves out an important element of the human experience: being able to share grief, frustration, disappointment and fear and get meaningful support from loved ones.
When an individual lets themself become vulnerable and share a challenge with someone close to them, and their vulnerability is met with empty platitudes, they may feel discouraged and isolated. Toxic positivity can lead to superficial relationships when both people feel they have to maintain a happy, upbeat facade even when life is challenging.
In a parent/child relationship, toxic positivity in the face of problems with friends or disappointing test scores sends the message that unpleasant feelings aren’t okay. This may condition the child to not express or learn how to handle these feelings. In a relationship with a friend or spouse, negative positivity can lead to feelings of shame and guilt and the inability to form anything more than a superficial connection. Additionally, not dealing with challenging emotions may cause problems later on.
Signs that Toxic Positivity May Be Ruining a Relationship
Not everyone is comfortable discussing sad or difficult topics. Despite the best intentions, it’s normal to mess up and say something that doesn’t convey the intended sentiment. However, it’s important for someone to pay attention to how they respond when a loved one confides in them. Denying emotions can cause lasting damage to a relationship.
Inability to Deal with Difficult Emotions
Toxic positivity is a way to avoid engaging with unpleasant emotions. It’s important to remember that not all difficult situations are puzzles that need to be solved. While someone’s instinct may be to fix their loved one’s pain, a fix may not be realistic, necessary or even desired. When someone is going through a significant loss, for example, they’re likely not interested in feeling better or pulling through their grief. Instead, they may need to connect with someone who isn’t afraid of or put off by their grief and is willing to engage with sensitive topics.
Difficulty Opening Up
Telling someone that they shouldn’t feel a certain way can create a sense of guilt, making it difficult for them to open up. To avoid feeling guilt over difficult emotions or being shut down, the individual may avoid discussing events and emotions that are bothering them. This may keep the relationship on a superficial
Resentment for Unmet Expectations
Despite every intention of putting one’s best foot forward and trying to put a positive spin on every circumstance, life is full of challenges. Financial insecurity, relationship challenges and losing loved ones may all be unavoidable at some point. Being unable to acknowledge challenging circumstances and accepting someone’s difficult feelings can create resentment when reality doesn’t match up with an individual’s high expectations.
How to Address Toxic Positivity
Being aware of tendencies towards denying emotions and maintaining toxic optimism is an important step toward creating healthy emotional responses towards hardship. This is true whether an individual is learning to accept and validate difficult emotions in others or themselves.
Learn to Embrace All Emotions
Addressing toxic positivity requires that an individual learns to recognize that all feelings are normal and valid. This is essential for recognizing true wants and needs and building genuine connections with others. All feelings, pleasant and unpleasant, are beneficial and part of the human experience. Learning to embrace and engage with all emotions can help an individual cultivate deeper relationships and handle challenging circumstances.
Pay Attention to Social Media Consumption
Social media seems to be full of empty motivational statements about staying positive and maintaining an optimistic mindset no matter how dire circumstances may be. Influencers capitalize heavily on living their best lives because brands don’t want negativity associated with them. As a result, every message is overly positive and can portray the idea that everyone is happy.
No one will argue that being grateful for what they have and looking for new opportunities during unexpected challenges is a bad thing. However, experiencing and processing disappointment, grief, fear and frustration is equally important for mental health. Learning to recognize empty platitudes and watch for statements that may shame those experiencing hardship can help the individual guard against feelings of inadequacy, isolation and guilt.
Take Time to Listen to Others
Toxic positivity is often used to shut down uncomfortable conversations. To change this pattern, the individual can actively listen when a loved one is talking about a challenge they’re facing. Oftentimes, toxic optimism comes from good intentions. Someone may not know what to say to a loved one but they don’t want to seem uncaring. Instead of saying nothing, they may resort to cliches. It may be helpful to remember that not every problem has a solution and that the willingness to share in a friend’s challenges mean more than empty platitudes ever could.
With time, practice and emotional intelligence, an individual can learn to overcome toxic positivity and build more meaningful connections and authentic emotional responses in their relationships.
When toxic positivity may be contributing to substance use or mental health issues, our team of licensed medical and clinical professionals may be able to help. You can reach out to us any time at 1-877-447-0586.