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What is Toxic Positivity and How Can We Avoid It?

Years ago, I had a friend who was facing a very difficult time. Her marriage was struggling, and she was also having some challenges at work. As we sat together, she would share a bit of what was bothering her, stop, apologize, say something like, “But other people have it so much worse than I do”, and then try to express her pain again. For the fifteen minutes we were together, the pattern continued:

Share difficult information or emotions.

Stop.

Express guilt for what she shared.

Try to put a positive spin on it.

Repeat.

It was hard to watch her struggle, knowing she was in pain, but also knowing she was uncomfortable fully expressing herself. To be clear, this is no criticism of her. Despite my assurance that she could be as mad/sad/disappointed as she needed, the pressure to “stay positive” affects many of us. It’s one of the side effects of living in a culture that often promotes toxic positivity.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the pressure to maintain a positive, upbeat perspective no matter how difficult or upsetting a situation may be. Rather than acknowledging and allowing the good and difficult aspects of life to coexist, this extreme allows only positive emotions, shutting down authentic expression. Of course, having an “attitude of gratitude” and optimism has benefits, but those approaches are not intended as replacements for honestly dealing with difficult circumstances and emotions. In general, people do not do well mentally or emotionally when they feel one way but try to force themselves to feel another.

Why Do We Engage in Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity can be directed inward (as in the above example) or toward others. This overly positive approach usually happens for one of a couple of reasons: 1) we aren’t sure how to respond, so we try to say something positive, 2) we are distressed by someone else’s distress, and we just want them to feel better, 3) we are uncomfortable “sitting” with hard emotions, so we try to elevate the situation.

It is important to realize that almost all of us do this at one point or another because hard emotions are just that…hard. It is very natural to try to make difficult situations better. But we are going to do ourselves (and others) more good if we can learn to respond in ways that allow authenticity, rather than avoiding pain, offering false positivity, or inadvertently shaming people in their suffering. All of these can be unintended consequences of toxic positivity.

How Can We Avoid Toxic Positivity?

  1. Recognize the value and growth that comes from allowing all emotions to co-exist and inform our perspective. We can evaluate and manage emotions more accurately when we aren’t denying them.
  2. Give yourself, and others, spoken permission to express difficult emotions. Cultivate people in your life who are comfortable being with you in hard times.
  3. Recognize when you are trying to go around hard emotions with overly positive statements that are more socially acceptable.
  4. Recognize if you are feeling guilty (or shaming others) about difficult emotions and “lean in.” Difficult emotions tend to resolve better when they are acknowledged and accepted.
  5. Remember that feeling difficult emotions is a normal response to difficult situations, not a reflection of someone’s lack of strength, hope, or bravery.
  6. If you need to express difficult emotions, be clear about your expectations for the listener. People are more likely to “just listen” if you tell them you don’t need them to fix things.

To close, I wanted to offer two of the best video clips available on the value of accepting, learning from, and creating connection amid difficult emotions. May you be encouraged and inspired by the fabulous Brene Brown and the characters of Sadness and Bing-Bong in Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

November 9, 2021. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. www.annerulo.com. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo

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