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The Antidote to Toxic Positivity

The dark side of positive vibes.

Key points

  • Toxic positivity is the faulty belief that people should only feel "good" emotion and that a positive attitude will solve one's problems.
  • The pressure to stay positive can invalidate one's feelings when in a crisis, lead to guilt and shame, and prevent one from asking for help.
  • Overcoming toxic positivity involves learning to regulate emotions, for example by accepting one's feelings and trying to make sense of them.

You are probably just one of the millions who got stuck in the lockdown limbo. No matter how hard you tried to stay positive, you were getting nowhere. We all struggled to find a way out of what seemed like an eternal waiting moment.

To make things worse, positivity cues became ubiquitous. On Instagram alone, over 100 million #goodvibes posts were encouraging us to stay positive.

Your boss has scheduled yet another Zoom call? At least you have a job! The kids are interrupting you while working from home? Enjoy having more time to spend with your family. Feeling anxious or lost? Well, at least you're healthy.

There's nothing wrong with being optimistic and looking at the bright side of things. On the contrary. The problem is when we are forced to wear the positivity mask all day. And end up bottling our real emotions just to look good.

Toxic positivity is the (faulty) belief that you should only feel "good" or "happy" emotions. It's about thinking that a positive attitude will solve all our problems, including mental health issues.

Clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman defines toxic positivity as a societal assumption that we should only strive to have a positive outlook.

According to Zuckerman, "The absence of a 'think positive' or 'good vibes only' attitude makes people feel as though happiness is unattainable and having negative emotions is wrong. We are currently experiencing the collective trauma of a global pandemic. It is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, and often grief-inducing."

The Dark Side of Positivity

Trying to stay optimistic is a good thing. However, that doesn't mean you should silence negative feelings. Emotions are signals; you can mask the symptom but not the root problem. Faking your emotions won't make them go away.

Psychologist Carl Jung said it best, "What you resist not only persists but will grow in size."

The pressure and expectation to "stay positive" when you're experiencing a crisis not only invalidates your emotions but actually forces you to censor them. Instead of asking for support and help, you end up pretending everything's fine.

Toxic positivity can lead to guilt and shame, bottling what you experience.

As positive psychology coach Tallia Deljou explains, "Toxic positivity refers to when we minimize and neglect the entirety of the human experience when it comes to emotions and what we give ourselves permission to feel."

Toxic positivity assumes that a positive mindset is the only one worth having. You are either a cheerleader or the one who drags everyone down. Over-the-top positivity is the need to express only the emotions that others will find acceptable.

Studies show that emotional suppression – avoiding or denying our emotions – can lead to unhappiness, sadness, and depression. Isolation is another major factor.

Research by Brené Brown shows that the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy, and judgment. When we bottle our emotions, shame is usually in the driver's seat. The worst part? We usually don't realize we are experiencing it. Shame debilitates the human spirit – it's one of the most uncomfortable feelings you can feel.

Seeing emotions as mutually exclusive is unhealthy. We all experience various emotions throughout the day. It's normal to feel conflicting emotions simultaneously. Most emotions are multi-layered. You can feel grief, sadness, and hope at the same time.

Toxic positivity can harm motivation and self-confidence. Instead of feeling motivated to put in the work, we rely on magical thinking to achieve our goals. We expect that a positive mindset will be enough to turn things around.

The Antidote to Toxic Positivity

Overcoming toxic positivity requires learning how to regulate your emotions.

Psychiatrist Sue Varma recommends having a place to park your emotions, like keeping a journal or having a hobby that helps us acknowledge all our feelings. Making space for our emotions is crucial to name what we are feeling without judging how we feel.

There are three types of emotional regulation:

1. Emotional suppression: We experience an emotion, but silence its behavioral expression. Unfortunately, suppression creates the reverse outcome: We end focusing on negative emotions rather than positive ones.

2. Emotional acceptance: This is a more effective approach in which we accept our feelings without fighting or judging them. By learning to observe our emotions without doing anything, we learn not to run away from them.

3. Emotional reappraisal: To successfully reframe your emotions, first, you must recognize the pattern. Emotional reappraisal is cognitive by nature. By making sense of our feelings, we can dial them down a notch.

Cognitive reappraisal is the antidote to toxic positivity. Becoming more satisfied with your life depends not so much on the emotions you experience but on how you deal with them.

Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, recommends showing up. Instead of ignoring difficult emotions or overemphasizing positive thinking, choose to face your emotions and behaviors head-on – with curiosity and kindness.

Why is this emotion present? What is it trying to tell me?

Emotional agility requires navigating life's turns with self-acceptance, clarity, and an open mind. By facing your emotions with courage and compassion, you can reframe the narrative.

People who practice unconditional self-acceptance – allowing themselves to experience whatever emotions arise without judgment – can separate performance from self-worth and are less likely to feel depressed.

Start by changing the language when someone asks for your help (and the other way around). Rather than trying to impose an emotional label, provide validation and hope.

Use the following table to reframe emotions. For example:

Instead of saying: "Think positive."

Try this: "The way you are feeling is valid; how can I help you?"

Gustavo Razzetti/ Fearless Culture
Source: Gustavo Razzetti/ Fearless Culture

Reframing our emotions gives us time to breathe and recover.

There's nothing wrong with a positive attitude. The problem with toxic positivity is pretending to look happy all the time, even when you are feeling down. Rather than suppressing your emotions, embrace them and find a more balanced approach to how you feel.

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