Forms of positivity are continuously injected into different aspects of our lives. On a team Zoom call, your boss might ask teammates to share personal gratitudes or good news. During your lunch break, you scroll through Instagram, which is sprinkled with cheerful photos, accompanied by inspirational captions or detailing exciting life milestones. While peddling through sweat in an evening workout, your Peloton instructor shouts encouragement and positive affirmations. And after a long day at work, you vent to your partner, who replies, "Don't worry, be happy!"
Our daily interactions with friends, family, the internet, and social media are filled with uplifting catchphrases and optimistic quotes intended to inspire positivity. While having a positive outlook can support mental wellness, life isn't always positive, and these well-intended sayings can offer false reassurance or minimize our feelings. In fact, these cheerful facades can contribute to a version of positivity that is toxic to our mental health.
The term toxic positivity refers to handling negativity with unwavering optimism. It lacks empathy, dismisses emotions, and ultimately prevents growth by burying our feelings under a pile of false affirmations, hope, and expectations. Although not intended to cause harm, toxic positivity can negatively impact our mental health. Overwhelmingly positive responses can reinforce the notion that negative emotions aren't permitted, and this kind of avoidance or suppression can lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety. Instead of constantly touting positive affirmations, mental health professionals encourage leaning into the authenticity of emotion and accepting it, regardless of its origin. While toxic positivity conveys that complete happiness is the expectation, that's not realistic. It's normal to feel stressed, worried, upset or sad, and experiencing this array of emotions is key to mental wellbeing.
Signs of toxic positivity include brushing off problems, hiding your feelings, minimizing the feelings of others, or shaming negativity. If you find you're being met with positive toxicity, while it may be easier to dismiss uncomfortable feelings, give yourself the time and space to take note of your internal experience and explore where the feeling might be coming from. This can be done by finding a quiet room, closing your eyes, and acknowledging what's being felt without judgment.
Emotions can provide valuable information that should be observed and used. By exploring challenging emotions, you can offer yourself the opportunity to gain deeper insight and clarity into your internal experience, which can lead to problem solving and resolution.
If you find yourself being confided in by someone looking to talk about how they're feeling, try not to reply with toxic positivity. Quietly listen and convey empathy by offering validation. Validating someone's feelings might sound like, "That must be really hard," "I'm here for you," "What can I do to support you?" Although it may feel instinctual to say "Don't stress," "It'll work itself out," or "It'll be okay," try taking a more compassionate approach by affirming rather than minimizing their worry.
Toxic positivity can also arise when setting ambitious resolutions in the new year. The beginning of every year is a season that brings about a sense of renewal. Many people will honor this renewal by setting goals or resolutions as a motivator to solicit personal growth in the upcoming year. Setting expectations without allowing space for flexibility can lead to feelings of shame and guilt if we fail to meet our expectations. Rigidity around new year's resolutions can invalidate the human experience, one that includes stress, failure, loss, sadness, grief, and pain, by gaslighting ourselves. However, trying times can provide us with learning opportunities to process our emotions and reconceptualize our thinking and strategy.
In order to really change our thinking and behavior, we must gather awareness of how we feel and intellectualize our experience, reflect on why these emotions and thoughts are arising, and take deliberate action to reconceptualize our understanding. While positive affirmations and resolutions are valuable, they should be preceded by mindful awareness, intention, and action to achieve sustainable healing.