Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Can we talk about toxic positivity?
“Positive vibes only”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Things could be worse.”
“At least you still have…”
“Think happy thoughts.”
These phrases are so commonplace. They slip out during conversation without much thought. Even though people say these things intending to bring comfort and cheer to the person who’s going through pain, loss, or grief, they are often empty, frustrating, and hard to hear. These phrases and many like them point to toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
an obsession with positive thinking.
the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.
the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.
A case for positivity
On this blog, we’ve spoken about how the law of attraction, affirmations, and manifestations can help you move the mountains in your life by adopting positive energy and thinking more positively about your life. Yes, positivity does give us the drive to go out there and conquer the world.
But there’s nothing about life that’s black and white. Bad things happen: we lose jobs, go through illnesses that break us, heartaches that crack us open. When we go through hard life situations, a cocktail of emotions flows in and trying to “positive away" these emotions does little to nothing for us.
Why do we do it?
Statements like "Things could be worse", "Everything happens for a reason", "Be strong" spring out of us with good intentions. When we use toxic positivity with the people in our lives and the people we love, we hope to cheer them up, liven their spirits, and lighten the load on their shoulders. But the impact is not what we expect. Toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, façade.
We're afraid of feelings
According to licensed therapist Jody Kemmerer, LCSW, toxic positivity stems from wishing we felt something else. We all desire lives filled with joy, happiness, ease, sparkles, and rainbows. When trouble, loss, and grief hit, we feel the need to shift and "turn (i.e force) that frown upside down" so strongly.
It’s easier to encourage people around us and ourselves to “look on the bright side”. Sitting with our feelings, going through the depths and meanings of our hurt is hard. It takes more time, effort, and energy. What people need is hard and more involved.
We are afraid to sit with our feelings of doubt, regret, loss, pain, and anger. We are afraid of embracing the truth that life can be hard and that bad things have happened either to us or the people in our lives.
We want to rush onto the next feel-good emotions, the next good news. We don't want to sit with negative emotions. But this won't make those shadow feelings go away.
We assume it’s always about self-pity
We are taught that thinking about our problems or negative feelings is a form of self-pity. Self-pity has a bad rep within society because of the common belief that anyone who speaks about their problems either does not desire to find a solution and only wants to ruminate over their problems and doom.
So, the moment someone starts to speak up about the hardships they are going through, we assume they are wallowing in self-pity and need to be jolted out of it.
Signs of toxic positivity
Hiding your painful emotions
Dismissing “negative” emotions when they arise
Trying to find the silver lining in every cloud even when you’re not fulfilled or happy
Feeling guilt for having “negative” emotions
Ignoring your problems and filling the space with positive sayings
Highlighting hardships that you think are worse to try and improve someone’s mood
Highlighting everything else that someone has going for themselves to dismiss their current state of mind or feelings
Dismissing or brushing off someone’s “negative” feelings
Telling people to “get over it” or urging them to “just keep at it” or “just pray” even in the face of hardships
Labelling those that do not share their hardships as strong, capable and likable
Why is it harmful?
“There are worse things happening in the world.” That’s true. There’s a lot of horrible things going on in the world and our news programmes are filled with those stories. That doesn’t negate the fact that someone is hurting. Their feelings are valid too.
We all desire to be seen and heard and so when someone comes to us with tales about everything they are going through that is hurting them, they easily feel like they are being shut down when you use these positive statements.
Emotional invalidation involves ignoring, denying, criticizing or rejecting another person’s feelings.
When someone loses their job, just like so many did in 2020, they feel like their world is ending. To then say to them, “There are worse things happening in the world.” is like saying, “Your problems don’t matter. Your feelings don’t matter.” If we can’t turn to the people in our lives to give us a shoulder to lean on when we feel despair, who can we turn to?
“There is no good or bad emotion. Every single emotion has a function. A function that tells us what is going on in our bodies, what is going on in our environment and how we should react to them. It is important though to note that emotions are data not directives.” Mahmoud Khedr, How Toxic Positivity Leads to More Suffering
If you’re on the “positive vibes only” track, you’re likely not to see the red flags that are meant to help you switch lanes. If all you think about is “positive vibes”, you won’t see red flags in your relationships, your job, or the current state of your life. Understanding your emotions, even the ones we don’t desire help us recognize what we want for our lives.
“Be strong” seems to suggest that emotion is weakness.
“Things could be worse” seems to suggest that someone is selfish, isn’t thankful for what they have, and is asking for too much out of their lives.
Vulnerability is something that’s not easy for many people to engage in. Often when we share, it’s for support, to know you’re still worthy of love even in the worst time of your life. For someone to dare to share the hopelessness they feel only to be bombarded with “positive vibes” makes them feel shameful for opening up about their concerns, desires and fears in the first place.
Sets unrealistic standards
“Positive vibes only” sets a standard that you must always be satisfied with your life. It suggests that you must always be happy, joyful and excited about life. That isn’t realistic.
Social media with all its bells and whistles has made it seem like the only life worth living is the perfect kind. However, very few people share their behind-the-scenes or sad says on social media. It’s the luxury vacation pictures, the hotel standard breakfasts and fancy clothes that bring all the likes.
We subconsciously feel like because of these things, life is only about happiness. We start to assume our lives aren’t worth living because we don’t experience joy all the time. But life’s complexities aren’t about just the highs and so our responses to people’s pain shouldn’t either.
It can be manipulative
Yup, it can!
Jack and Maggie are in a relationship. Jack is verbally abusive. When Maggie raises this with Jack and tells him about how unhappy and doesn’t want to be treated this way, Jack tells her, “At least I don’t beat you.” Sadly, Maggie might hear, “At least he doesn’t beat you” when she speaks to someone in her life about the issue.
This kind of toxic positivity is manipulative. Intentional or not, it suggests that a victim accept the status quo even when that is hurting them. Because we use toxic positivity on ourselves too, we can find ourselves stuck in a situation that just doesn’t fit anymore or is chipping away at our lives even though deep down we are unhappy and unsettled. It keeps us from growing and shifting.
Lessons from “Inside Out”
“The only way to not feel pain is to never feel love.” Unknown
“Inside Out” is a brilliant animation that’s based on the personified emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) of a little girl named Riley. The film follows Joy as she realises that happiness isn’t the goal of life and that even when achieved there is no happiness without moments of sadness.
In Jonathan Decker’s analysis of the movie, he notes that during one of Joy’s happiest moments was also one of the saddest. She realizes that even the most triumphant moments of her experience can come out of loss.
Viewers of the movie “Inside Out” have also noticed that Joy’s character design was unlike the other characters in the film. She was the most colourful of the characters with her blue hair, green dress, pink lips and purple bag (blue being Sadness’ colour, red being Anger’s colour, purple being Fear’s colour, green being Disgust’s colour). Joy had bits of colour from the other characters added to her design.
What we need instead
Comfort, acknowledgement, validity and support
“When we give each other comfort, we show compassion. We show empathy. That’s the most beautiful love there is. You’re suffering and I’m not going to leave you. You’re struggling and I’m here with you and you’re not alone.” Jonathan Decker.
Most times all someone needs to hear is that you’re there for them, or to simply listen because they have so much on their chest.
When someone comes to you and shares how they are feeling and how life isn’t going their way, try this:
Instead of “Things could be worse” try, “I’m sorry that you are going through such a hard time.”
Instead of “Be strong!” try, “I understand how stressful this can be. Do you need me to do anything for you?”
Instead of “Positive vibes only” try “Tell me how you’re feeling.”
Instead of “Just pray” try “It sounds like you’re frustrated and are going through a hard time. Do you want to talk about what’s going on with you?”
It’s okay to not to be okay. It’s okay to feel your emotions and understand what is going on with you.
“Nothing blooms all year round. Be patient with yourself.” Unknown