We’re always given encouragement that, in times of struggle and disappointment, it’s crucial for us to remain positive.
When something unfortunate occurs, we are told to ‘look on the bright side’ of things. We are told that ‘things could be a lot worse’ and that we ought to focus on things that bring us joy, rather than things that cause us to dwell on anything that is negative.
The advice is always given in good spirits. Generally speaking, people tell us to cheer up because they want to contribute in helping but unfortunately don’t really know how to do so.
There comes a time, however, when this well-intended advice is not only ineffective, but causing more harm than good. At what point does the encouragement to ‘keep positive’ stop being helpful and crosses into the point of being dismissive at best or toxic at the worst?
What is Toxic Positivity?
Psychology Today defines toxic positivity as the concept that keeping positive is the only right way to live your life. More important, the trait that can make positivity ‘toxic’ is the idea that we have to only focus on positive things while rejecting anything that may trigger a negative emotion.
At first glance, this sounds like a stretch. After all, what’s so wrong with being positive and encouraging others to do the same?
There isn’t anything wrong with keeping a positive attitude. Honestly, being able to catch yourself from falling into the pit of despair or stress in order to reason with your feelings is a huge skill that not enough of us work on.
However, toxic positivity doesn’t encourage people to reason and deal with their negative emotions but to avoid them. Being positive does not mean that you are oblivious to the world around you or the magnitude of your problems, and it certainly doesn’t mean avoiding any emotions that are unpleasant (anger, grief, sadness, etc.).
For example, right after the Christmas holiday I acquired some sort of stomach virus that had me cooped up in my apartment for the rest of the week. I wasn’t really in a condition to do much of anything. I couldn’t stand for long periods of time without getting dizzy, my stomach was in pain, I couldn’t keep my food down, nor could I digest well.
I was speaking to someone about this, and as soon as I brought up the word ‘sick’, she quickly cut me off and said “No, don’t speak that over yourself! You’re overcoming!”
And I totally understand the sentiment. She was encouraging me to speak what I want, and not what I have. It’s a principle that I am mindful of, and I appreciate her for wanting to do that. However, just because I change the verbiage does not mean I have changed fact. The fact of the matter: I was sick, I was contagious, and I needed to get better.
Positivity tells us that, despite the problem, we will overcome it. Toxic positivity tells us that there isn’t a problem to deal with in the first place. One works out of the mentality that we can acknowledge an obstacle, whereas one works out of the mentality that if we acknowledge the obstacle we make things worse.
We Can’t Avoid Difficult Emotions
Toxic Positivity’s objective isn’t to solve a problem, but to avoid negative feelings. However, doing everything we can to avoid ‘bad vibes’ or ‘negative energy’ will only make our difficult emotions stronger and more difficult to maintain.
We can never avoid difficult emotions, we can only prolong them. By avoiding our difficult emotions, we make them ‘bigger’. In other words, we’re simply just a heavily shaken bottle of Coke waiting to burst. Toxic Positivity abandons the idea that we need to process our emotions, and it emphasizes the idea of forcing ourselves to feel happy at all times (which is impossible). Toxic Positivity tells us to hide behind a smile and eventually those hard emotions will simply vanish without us dealing with them.
Another negative aspect of Toxic Positivity is that we inadvertently close ourselves off to others. This is a lesson I learned after having a conversation with a close friend about a year ago.
“You know,” he said, “I feel like you always have a lot of good stuff to say. You know a lot of stuff and you’re really good at rationalizing and being thoughtful. But I also feel like I don’t know you all the way.”
Perplexed, I asked him to elaborate.
“I don’t know,” he contemplated, “It’s like I haven’t necessarily seen you be emotional. Not like theatrics or anything like that, but just…you seem very calculative in everything you do. It just feels like there’s a wall that I don’t think you actually know is there”.
The news stunned me, but when I thought more about it, a lot of our conversations had revolved around me giving him advice or encouragement, giving him positive affirmations and just being a good all-around friend. However, in these conversations laced with positivity and encouragement, I was helping him expose himself but I wasn’t necessarily doing the same. To make it short: even though I had been friendly, I was also inadvertently making myself heavily unrelateable.
Honestly, I should have known better because I’ve been on the receiving end of this. I’ve met people who come off as if they have absolutely no problems, no struggles, no worries. It is extremely difficult to feel a true connection with people like this. In fact, I could go as far as to say people like this are really annoying. A lot of people will hear this and believe that it’s coming from jealousy. But we can all agree that, if you are breathing, you are going to deal with/will deal with some sort of struggle.
But interacting with someone who wants to think that “nothing is ever wrong and everything is always fine” is another world of frustration. Positivity says “I’ve been through something, but I’ll overcome it” while Toxic Positivity says “I’m not going through anything because I’m not letting anything get to me to the point where I feel like I’m struggling”.
Spotting the Difference
As previously stated, people who tells us to “cheer up”, “look on the bright side”, “be grateful” are all doing this with the best intentions. However, there are better things to say to someone who is going through a difficult time.
People who utilize a dismissive approach usually just don’t know how to go about helping the other person deal with their negative emotions. In other instances, they’re afraid that the negative emotions will “rub off” from the other person and would like to avoid it all together. Here are some example phrases that I find pretty helpful:
Instead of this: “Cheer up, it’s not so bad!” Try this: “I know you’re not feeling good about this right now. I’m definitely hoping/praying things get better. Tell me how you’re feeling; what’s on your mind?”
Instead of this: “I know how you feel! Something like that happened to me once” Try this: “I can’t begin to understand what you’re feeling right now. I’m deeply sorry about what happened. Are you able to talk about this right now?”
Instead of this: “Don’t get so worked up, it’s not that serious!” Try this: “This really has you upset/angry. I’d like to know what’s going through your head right now. Do you need to vent a little? I don’t want you to say or do anything you might regret later”.
These are only a couple of general examples, but what I find to be the biggest help is honestly not saying anything at all. A lot of times when we listen, we are only listening in order to craft a response. However, we should be listening to seek understanding of the other person. It’s surprising how many people come to their own conclusions and deal with their tough emotions just by talking them out, without any verbal contribution from the other party.
Think of it this way: This person has come to me with their problem. They came to me to express their sadness, their struggle, their anger, their frustration, etc. That means that this person feels vulnerable enough with me to do so. By dismissing the emotions of this person who came to me, I’m chipping away at their trust. They may feel less inclined to open up again because they feel that I’ll just shoo them away with a quick positive statement. They will feel like I don’t truly care.
The biggest difference-maker between Positivity and Toxic Positivity is that the former will acknowledge the difficulty behind a task while still going through with it. Positivity acknowledges that emotions are part of life and that they’re not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
All of this isn’t to say that we should all be wearing our emotions on our sleeves, that we should be dragging our feet and wearing gloomy faces all the time. But what we do have to realize is that positivity isn’t a ‘quick fix’. We can’t sprinkle positive words on our situation and then expect everything to get better in a snap. Positive words are only effective when followed by positive action.
Emotional stability isn’t absence of emotions or ignoring emotions, it is acknowledging them while not allowing them to become a hindrance to your everyday life.
So yes, you can go to the pity party. But don’t take off your coat and shoes and stay a while. Stop by, feel those feelings, and leave as soon as possible.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Awkward Penguin,