Toxic positivity has deeply ingrained itself into society’s fabric today.
The positivity brigade has got it into the minds of millions that you can get rich by merely wishing upon it. But if you fail to bag your pot of abundance from the universe, ‘the secret’ camp will convince you it’s your fault. You couldn’t shake the dark pocket of negativity that was holding you back.
Oh, if only positive thinking could lead us to a life of success and happiness!
The trouble is, positive thoughts do not pay the bill or fill the stomach. And it’s not making us happier; in fact, it’s making us miserable. Ironically, the constant pressure to banish negative emotions is making us feel even more unhappy.
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Let’s dive into the truth behind toxic positivity, and learn how to avoid the positivity trap, support each other, and live more fulfilling lives.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the belief that people should have a positive attitude no matter how risky or hard their circumstances are. It is a flawed approach to emotional regulation. It involves rejecting negative emotions and responding to sufferings with false assurances rather than empathy.
The term “toxic positivity” was coined by psychologist Barbara Ehrenreich in her New York Times bestselling book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It refers to the idea that we should be careful not to get too caught up in our own happiness and instead focus on solving problems or making improvements.
Why toxic positivity is harmful?
Relentless positivity and optimism at the cost of canceling difficult emotions are not always good for our mental health.
- Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore contentious issues in their relationships and instead focus on the positive.
- People who are pressured to smile in the face of adversity are less likely to seek support, out of shame or guilt.
- A bereaved individual who often receives reminders to move on or be cheerful may believe that others are indifferent to their loss.
- Telling people who are struggling to focus on positive thinking and a bright future is unhelpful in relieving their suffering.
- Toxic optimism urges people to suppress or dismiss their unpleasant emotions in order to feel more in control. However, when a person is unable to feel happy, they may believe they are failing.
This is a typical case of toxic positivity: You share your problem with someone, and they ask you to look on the bright side of it.
Their statements sound like: “Well, you have so much to thank your stars for! Thank God that things didn’t go any worse. Try to look at it positively.”
Toxic positivity leaves you confused and alienated.
These responses leave you feeling confused and alienated, even if the person meant well and tried to be helpful. Those messages of positivity may make you feel even worse off than you were before.
Scholars like Bell Hooks and Barbara Ehrenreich have criticized the modern-day pursuit of happiness and positivity. They have highlighted how these attitudes can harm both individuals and minority groups.
Toxic positivity has links with racial discrimination and gender inequality.
Toxic positive expectations and statements often lay down a bedrock of racism and classism.
For example, the tag of “strong Black woman” is a societal pressure of positive expression. But we know that it is perfectly fine to feel weak, frustrated, or sad, whatever the race or gender identity.
Positive messages do not improve the outcome of a terrible disease.
It’s time to admit that our obsession with being positive may be damaging in a variety of ways, especially for vulnerable people. We must learn to stop telling people to “look on the bright side” of a tragedy.
Often, there is no positive side to a devastating event. At other times, a chronic or terminally ill person does not want to listen to meaningless happy clichés.
Origins of toxic positivity
Thinking positively does not come to us naturally.
It’s not in our nature to be overly positive about everything. In fact, it’s the inverse. Humans are inherently pessimistic. It’s an evolutionary adaptation. Our brains are wired to constantly look for dangers. This negativity-based survival mechanism kept our ancestors alive.
Positivity is a cultural construct.
The push to be positive begins at an early age, when children are taught not to complain at home or school. They get told that homes and schools are places to “be happy.”
Kids raised in such an environment of relentless positivity learn that negative thoughts and feelings must be avoided or suppressed. They also imbibe that positivity is the only way to happiness and success in life.
The first ideas of positive thinking appeared in the 19th century US.
Phineas Quimby (1802–1866), a clockmaker with an interest in hypnotism and mentalism, was the first to come up with the idea that physical illness is basically a matter of the mind.
He held that a patient’s illness is caused by their mistaken beliefs. Hence, to cure any illness, one has to discover the truth and change their thoughts.
“Thus man is a mere lump of clay in the hands of blind guides and whatever they say to the people they believe. Their beliefs disturb their minds and the doctors sow the seed of disease which they nurse till it grows to a belief, then comes the misery.” — P. P. Quimby
People loved Quimby’s idea that they could control their lives simply by having positive thoughts and beliefs. Thus, Quimby became the father of the popular “New Thought” movement.
Later, in the 1930s, the positive thinking movement became part of the recipe for power and success.
Positive thinking has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry in the twenty-first century. Americans today spend excessive amounts of time, energy, and money on mind-body healing and self-help, and yet it has not increased their happiness.
Why positivity is not always helpful?
Toxic positivity deludes people into believing that their prime goal in life is to be happy.
But it is impractical to keep a positive attitude in the face of adversity. Emotional upheavals and negative feelings are unavoidable in life. Suffering is a part of a wholesome life.
To be happy in the present, we get told to always expect positive results, to seek the bright side of every event, and to replace our gloomy thoughts and negative feelings with positivity. Sadly, however, doing so often makes us feel even more stressed and unhappy.
Forced positivity can get people trapped in a cycle of shame. When they feel sad, they are urged to “look on the bright side” or remind themselves to be more positive. In either case, it makes the sad person feel ashamed for being sad.
Please reach out to your mental health counselor if you feel guilty about your sadness.
How to avoid being toxic positive
Curiosity, understanding, validation, and empathy are the four vital aspects of supporting and assisting people in their times of need.
- Showing curiosity and interest when people share their struggles with you. Listen actively and ask open-ended questions, such as “Can you tell me more on this?”
- Nonverbal signs such as nodding and eye contact will give your confidant the impression that they have your undivided attention.
- Try to understand why they are feeling this way as you listen to them. It will help you evaluate their experience empathically.
- Acknowledge their pain, and express words of empathy, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” Remember that empathizing does not mean agreeing with them, but rather accepting that their perspectives and feelings are valid.
After you have seamlessly expressed curiosity, understanding, validation, and empathy, your confidant may believe you have a compassionate perspective on their situation, and they feel supported.
You could also want to check in on them regularly, so they know you are there for them. At times, the most helpful thing to say is, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”
How to deal with toxic positivity
1. The right course of action is to gently dismiss others’ words of toxic positivity. Even better, go to a mental health professional to discuss your concerns rather than someone you know will push you to see the bright side.
2. To get rid of the pressure of inauthentic positivity, accept that difficult emotions are a part of human life. Avoiding or suppressing them only increases your stress, while doing nothing to solve your problems.
3. Instead, when you notice an unpleasant feeling arising, do not try to evade or suppress it. Allow yourself to be aware of it, and to identify and label the emotion. Is it fear? Is it anger?
4. Once you have named it, practice embracing the negative emotion. Let your body experience your difficult emotion fully. To feel an emotion, your body must go through the entire cycle of rising, peaking, and falling.
5. Sit with your emotion, let it peak, and then pass. Mindful breathing and letting yourself cry can help process a difficult emotion.
6. Another technique to counter toxic positivity is radical acceptance or amor fati. It is perhaps the best antidote to toxic positivity.
In this, you accept the current situation as it is, accepting that you cannot alter it in any way. It means that even though you do not like it, you accept it.
Radical acceptance is also an acceptance of your reality. While it may feel paradoxical, it eliminates the urge to deny or whitewash things.
Things not to say to a struggling person
When someone is going through a difficult time, the last thing they need is to be told to “be positive.”
This is especially true when people are up against major, life-altering events. When we know someone who is going through a dark moment, here’s what we should not say:
“Try to be grateful for what you have.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Words like those above are far from encouraging and reassuring in the aftermath of a tragedy. Saying them is not going to make them feel any better.
Moreover, they mean to say that being sad is wrong. Avoid putting desperate people under such kind of positivity pressure, especially when they are grieving.
The toxic tendency to “think positive” in all circumstances is a harmful behavior. It leads to the storage of guilt and repression.
Stop pushing positivity on yourself and others. Instead, begin to understand that some negativity is an inescapable part of life. Free yourself from the toxic influence of inauthentic positivity.
While at it, also stop your pursuit of happiness. Instead, focus on living a value-driven life. Decide what values are important to you and live by them. It will eventually lead to a more satisfying life.
What are your thoughts on the current social media narrative of loving yourself for who you are and being happy for what you have?
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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