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What Distinguishes Healthy Positivity From Toxic Positivity?

Written by: Flora Bami, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Positivity involves things like gratitude, optimism, and positive reappraisal. Research shows that positivity is good for our well-being. On the flip side, maybe you’ve felt annoyed, angry, or uncomfortable when positivity was forced on you. Indeed, positivity can be good for well-being as long as we’re not using it to avoid or suppress unpleasant emotions. Then, it can become toxic.

A photo of a sad woman in red background.

Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other uncomfortable experiences that exist (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020). It’s the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "good vibes only" approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.


It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish positivity from toxic positivity. For example, if someone tells us, “Look at the bright side,” we might feel like they are diminishing or denying our uncomfortable feelings. Because unpleasant emotions are tools, we use to get important needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment.


Here are a few more examples of toxic positivity:


I say: “I’m having a bad day.” Toxic response: “But you have so much to be grateful for.”

I say: “This job sucks.” Toxic response: “You’re lucky you even have a job.”


In these examples, someone is using positivity to get rid of our true or unpleasant experiences.


On the other hand, say a friend tells us, “Hey, it’s okay not to be okay.” This shows acceptance of our unpleasant emotions as well as compassion and gratitude. This approach is not toxic because it doesn't deny our emotions and force us to feel something we don’t want to feel.


We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental wellbeing. The problem is that life isn't always positive. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, are important and need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly.

Signs of toxic positivity


Toxic positivity can often be subtle, but by learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Some signs include:

  • Brushing off problems rather than facing them

  • Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed

  • Hiding or masking your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem more socially acceptable

  • Hiding or disguising how you really feel

  • Minimizing other people's feelings because they make you uncomfortable

  • Shaming other people when they don't have a positive attitude

  • Trying to be stoic or "get over" painful emotions

  • Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing or dismissing an emotion(s)

  • Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel

  • Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience.

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame”, Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity


If you’ve been affected by toxic positivity or if you recognize this kind of behavior in yourself, there are things that you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include:

Replace the word negative or bad with unpleasant or uncomfortable: All emotions are to be felt and experienced. Emotions are the language of our body, and we need to trust what our body is trying to tell us. By labeling some of them bad or negative, we automatically try to escape from them as we see them as dangerous. Changing the language, we use can have a profound impact on how we relate to our emotions.


Manage your unpleasant emotions, but don't deny them. Unpleasant emotions can cause stress when unchecked, but they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.


Be realistic about what you should feel. When you are facing a stressful situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Focus on self-care, be compassionate with yourself and take steps that can help improve your situation.


It’s okay to feel more than one thing. If you are facing a challenge, it’s possible to feel nervous about the future and also hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions are as complex as the situation itself.


Focus on listening to others and showing support. When someone expresses a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with toxic platitudes. Instead, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and that you are there to listen.

It’s important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalizing them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, and healthy and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Once we honor our feelings, we embrace ALL of ourselves, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And accepting ourselves just as we are, is the path to robust emotional life.

It's OK to feel sad, angry, hurt, disappointed, or any other more difficult emotion. The key is to give yourself grace through compassion. Toxic positivity doesn't make room for being self-compassionate or empathic. And not only does it not allow us to process our own emotions, but it can also create feelings of self-judgment, heightening the inner critic and negatively affecting self-esteem.


Examples of Non-Toxic & Self-Compassionate Statements:


From “Don’t think about it, stay positive!” to “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”

From “Don’t worry, be happy!” to “I see that you’re really stressed, anything I can do?”

From “Failure is not an option.” to “Failure is a part of growth and success.”

From “Delete Negativity” to “Suffering is a part of life, you are not alone.”

From “Look for the silver lining.” to “I see you. I’m here for you.”

Emodiversity: a mix of emotions is healthiest?


Emodiversity is defined as the diversity of emotional experience; a rich palette that dynamically spans joy, sadness, love, and anger that is more closely linked to happiness than the common myth that happiness equals a perpetual state of enthusiasm and cheer.


Whatever the case, cultivating self-awareness and allowing yourself to express your authentic emotions can be beneficial. No emotion is built to last. What matters is having mild positive emotions frequently. Branch out of your routine and do something new that might make you feel awe or pride and in tough situations, allow yourself to feel shame or guilt or jealousy rather than what you “should” feel. Emodiversity contributes to happiness and better health and wellbeing.


The bottom line


Being a healthy human being involves being conscious of ourselves and how we show up in the world. If you recognize yourself as a transmitter of toxic positivity, it’s time to cut it out. You’re hurting yourself and the people you care about most by insisting on this monochromatic mindset. Instead of practicing toxic positivity, aim for balance and the acceptance of ALL emotions rather than all-or-nothing thinking.


At the end of the day, it's really all about balance. The balance between positivity and being honest with yourself; gratitude and grief; and finding the silver lining without rushing the healing necessary when we're hurting. Being able to stay positive in times of trouble is great and can help with resilience, but the truth is, that processing and integrating tough emotions builds resilience, too.

Happiness is not a happy-go-lucky state without unpleasant emotions, where all our needs are met, and we experience constant satisfaction.


Let go of the expectation to feel happy all the time, it's unrealistic. Unpleasant emotions are natural and help us understand ourselves, what we value and what we may change in our life. Let go of wanting to feel happy all the time.


The happiest people are those with a wide range of emotions.


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Flora Bami, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Flora Bami is an optimist, an experienced and passionate integral coach, with expertise in life, mindset, relationships, and wellbeing coaching. Her main focus is on making your relationship with yourself healthier and reframing your inner voice based on self-love, acceptance, and compassion.


Her mission in life is to support people in their life journey to reach their potential and feel better and happier through individual coaching and setting up wellbeing programs in big organizations.


Better people, better world!


Happier people, happier world!


After going through a deep transformation herself and turning trauma into a gift, she dedicated her life to supporting people reconnecting with their true selves.

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