Sunlight through woods Photo by Kornél Máhl on Unsplash
Sunlight through woods Photo by Kornél Máhl on Unsplash

Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity minimizes the full range of human emotions and, while well intended, generally doesn't feel good to the person receiving it.

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What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. It doesn't feel good to be on the receiving end of it, and it generally isn't helpful. 

Pain and suffering are uncomfortable not only to experience but also to talk about. However, it is important for your mental and physical health to express and talk about those experiences. Often times, people just want to help and will say things like "it could be worse" or "look on the bright side". 

Positivity becomes toxic when someone is forced to be or seem to be positive in situations that it would be unnatural for them to be positive in, or when a problem exists that needs to be acknowledged before it can be dealt with.  For instance, the diagnosis of disease or in preparation for scans and lab work. 

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“Someone who is experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness can’t flip a switch or jolly their own way out of it. Toxic positivity refuses to acknowledge their challenges. If we ask others to be inauthentic, that doesn’t build resiliency and relationships.”

Attribution
Mary Jo Kreitzer, University of Minnesota, Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing

Impact of toxic positivity

Toxic positivity results in:

  • Denial
  • Minimization
  • Invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience 

In other words, it's an attempt to silence your pain and your authentic lived experience. Though these comments are generally well-meaning, and your friend or family member is trying to be helpful, not hurtful, it puts you in the difficult position of feeling silenced.  

 

Consequences of toxic positivity

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    Shame

     

    Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It is not helpful or productive. Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, harmful behavior than the solution or the cure. 

    Shame can make us pretend everything is great all the time, instead of being brave and honest.

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    Suppressed Emotions

    Toxic positivity can cause us to suppress our emotions, which in turn can:

    • Increase the physiological stress on the body
    • Create isolation and other relationship problems
    • Make it difficult to relate to others since you don't feel free to express yourself, to be seen, to be heard

    Studies have shown that people experience less of the physiological signs of stress in the body when they are allowed to outwardly express their emotions through words, facial expressions, and tears .

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    Isolation

     

    Isolation is detrimental to health and wellbeing.  It increases the risk of:

    • Developing coronary heart disease and stroke.
    • Dementia and depression. 
    • Chronic disease
    • Among older adults, dying early,  

How to Identify Toxic Positivity

Signs you are experiencing toxic positivity

Do you think you are experiencing toxic positivity? Are you unsure? Here are some cues that might help.

  • You feel the need to hide or mask your true feelings.
  • You try to just “get on with it” by dismissing an emotion.
  • You are guilty about what you feel.
  • You feel minimized by the “feel good” quotes or statements.
  • You struggle to accept perspectives like “it could be worse” instead of validating your lived emotional experience.
  • You are shamed or chastised for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.
  • You brush off things that are bothering you with an ”it is what it is” type attitude.
Signs you are offering toxic positivity

Are you trying to offer support and help to someone who is struggling? Remind yourself that you don't need to make them feel better all the time, maybe you can help by just listening and validating their emotions. Here are a few common sayings that contribute to toxic positivity:

  • It could be worse.
  • The grass is always greener on the other side.
  • Look on the bright side.
  • At least you're out of the hospital!
  • It will be fine.
  • God has a plan.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
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