On Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. It comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions.

Toxic positivity imposes positive thinking as the only solution to problems, demanding that a person avoid negative thinking or expressing negative emotions. A generally positive outlook is not harmful. However, a person who believes that they must only be positive may ignore serious problems or not address their own underlying mental health issues.

The research around positive thinking generally focuses on the benefits of having an optimistic outlook when experiencing a problem. Toxic positivity, by contrast, demands positivity from people regardless of the challenges that they face, potentially silencing their emotions and deterring them from seeking social support. It can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.

Additionally, people who demand positivity from others may offer insufficient support or make loved ones feel stigmatized and judged. Toxic positivity is shallow. It’s a false reassurance, like someone saying “everything happens for a reason” after someone dies or has a breakup or “everything will work out” after you lose your job or get a scary health diagnosis.

Some of the risks of toxic positivity from clinical psychology research include:
Ignoring real harm: A 2020 review of 29 studies of domestic violence found that a positive bias might cause people experiencing abuse to underestimate its severity and remain in abusive relationships. Optimism, hope, and forgiveness increased the risk of people staying with their abusers and being subject to escalating abuse.

Demeaning a loss: Grief and sadness are normal in the face of loss. A person who repeatedly hears messages to move on or have another child might feel as though others do not care about their loss. A parent who has lost a child, for example, might feel that their child was unimportant to others, compounding their grief.

Isolation and stigma: People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, deterring them from seeking help. According to the American Psychological Association, stigma can easily deter a person from seeking mental health treatment.

Communication issues: Every relationship has challenges. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive. This approach can destroy genuine communication and the ability to solve relationship problems.

Low self-esteem: Everyone experiences negative emotions sometimes. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore their negative emotions, even though stifling them can make them feel even more powerful. When a person is unable to feel positive, they may feel as though they are failing.

Examples of toxic positivity
-shaming other people for feeling negative emotions
-telling people it’s not that bad or that they’re lucky
-minimizing or mocking someone’s emotions
-hiding your feelings because you feel ashamed or embarrassed
-telling someone to pray on it or saying that everything happens for a reason

How to avoid toxic positivity
Some strategies for avoiding self-imposed toxic positivity include:
-recognizing negative emotions as normal and an important part of the human experience
-identifying and naming emotions rather than trying to avoid them
-practicing talking with trusted people about emotions, including negative feelings
-seeking support from nonjudgmental people, such as genuine friends or a therapist

A person can avoid imposing toxic positivity on others by:
-encouraging people to speak openly about their emotions
-getting more comfortable with negative emotions
-avoiding trying to have a positive response to everything a person says
-recognizing that intense negative emotions often coincide with powerful positive emotions, such as when profound grief signals intense love

Mindfulness and emotions
Recognize that emotions are tools. One approach to mindfulness is to look at emotions as tools or information, rather than focusing only on how they make you feel.
-All emotions are functional and have a purpose. They are a signal to the person experiencing them or the person being communicated to.
-Negative emotions like anger or fear serve to alert us about potential danger or threat, whereas positive emotions like happiness foster connection and opportunities to be creative.
-Admit your interpersonal mistakes. Whether in the moment or after the fact, if you realize you dismissed a loved one’s negative emotions or cut them off with toxic positivity when they were trying to confide in you, own up to the mistake and apologize.

Feeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety, while isolation fuels these emotional issues. Often, trying to hide or deny feelings can lead to more stress on the body and increased difficulty in avoiding upsetting emotions.

Also see, The Importance of Crying.

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