What is Toxic Positivity and How Can We Avoid It?

This week’s post is published over at Missouri Partners in Prevention. In this month of thankfulness and gratitude, it’s important to remember that even those great things can be taken to an extreme. Here’s to embracing and learning from all our emotions, not just the ones that feel good. Full post here or preview below.

Years ago, I had a friend who was facing a very difficult time. Her marriage was struggling, and she was also having some challenges at work. As we sat together, she would share a bit of what was bothering her, stop, apologize, say something like, “But other people have it so much worse than I do”, and then try to express her pain again. For the fifteen minutes we were together, the pattern continued:

Share difficult information or emotions.

Stop.

Express guilt for what she shared.

Try to put a positive spin on it.

Repeat.

It was hard to watch her struggle, knowing she was in pain, but also knowing she was uncomfortable fully expressing herself. To be clear, this is no criticism of her. Despite my assurance that she could be as mad/sad/disappointed as she needed, the pressure to “stay positive” affects many of us. It’s one of the side effects of living in a culture that often promotes toxic positivity.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the pressure to maintain a positive, upbeat perspective no matter how difficult or upsetting a situation may be. Rather than acknowledging and allowing the good and difficult aspects of life to coexist, this extreme allows only positive emotions, shutting down authentic expression. Of course, having an “attitude of gratitude” and optimism has benefits, but those approaches are not intended as replacements for honestly dealing with difficult circumstances and emotions. In general, people do not do well mentally or emotionally when they feel one way but try to force themselves to feel another.

Why Do We Engage in Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity can be directed inward (as in the above example) or toward others. This overly positive approach usually happens for one of a couple of reasons: 1) we aren’t sure how to respond, so we try to say something positive, 2) we are distressed by someone else’s distress, and we just want them to feel better, 3) we are uncomfortable “sitting” with hard emotions, so we try to elevate the situation.

It is important to realize that almost all of us do this at one point or another because hard emotions are just that…hard. It is very natural to try to make difficult situations better. But we are going to do ourselves (and others) more good if we can learn to respond in ways that allow authenticity, rather than avoiding pain, offering false positivity, or inadvertently shaming people in their suffering. All of these can be unintended consequences of toxic positivity.

How Can We Avoid Toxic Positivity?

For six ways to avoid toxic positivity, link to the full post here.

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