There’s Nothing Positive About Toxic Positivity

The way to get through emotional pain is to be present and accept it.

Posted Nov 13, 2020

Alexey Hulsov from Pixabay
Source: Alexey Hulsov from Pixabay

The best way over is through. —Robert Frost

As the above quote from Robert Frost suggests, and as Carl Jung described, recognizing, being present with, accepting, and making peace with the darkness inside each of us—including distressing and painful emotions—is the only path to healing, authenticity, and wholeness. And yet, most people naturally try to avoid emotional pain. After all, who wants to experience pain? This relates to our own emotional distress, as well as the distress of others—especially those we care about. Seeing those we care about in emotional pain is painful, and even hearing about or being in close proximity to the pain of others can be well, painful.

The human tendency toward wishful thinking tells us that if we can just avoid the pain, it won’t affect us. Paradoxically, efforts to keep painful thoughts and feelings at bay may work temporarily, but in the long run, only prolong those experiences and amplify the intensity of the upset and suffering connected to them. Avoidance doesn’t work because emotional pain is an inevitable part of life. It is an essential aspect of being human. It is how we choose to respond to the emotional pain we experience that determines whether we are able to get through that pain, or unwittingly extend and intensify it.

An increasingly common form this avoidance takes is to focus on “the positive.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking and trying to maintain an upbeat attitude. The strategies of “fake it ‘till you make it” and acting “as if,” used in recovery and other personal growth-focused settings, can have value and utility. That said, often people feel pressured to do so at the expense of denying or minimizing difficult experiences and the distressing emotions that walk hand-in-hand with them. When an emphasis on being positive is used to cover up or silence the deeply real human experience of pain, it effectively becomes toxic.

Toxic positivity (also referred to as dismissive positivity) is the unhelpful and ultimately disrespectful overgeneralization of a cheerful, optimistic state across all circumstances. It is positivity taken to an unhealthy extreme, suggesting that we should maintain a rose-colored disposition no matter what our situation as encapsulated in the sentiment, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and dismisses essential aspects of authentic human emotional life. It’s important to note that toxic positivity can show up in how we treat ourselves, as well as in how we treat others, and how others treat us.

Common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity include:

  1. Dismissing an emotion(s) by trying to “tough it out” or “just get on with it.” 
  2. Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel.
  3. Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes, cliches, or statements, such as:
  • “Try to think positively.”
  • “It’s all for the best.”
  • “Everything will work out in the end.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  1. Offering perspective (e.g., “it could be worse” — even if accurate) instead of validating your own or someone else’s emotional experience.
  2. Suggesting that you or someone else shouldn’t feel however you/they feel.
  3. Brushing off things that are legitimately bothering you, along the lines of “It is what it is.”

A variety of scientific studies demonstrate that hiding or denying our emotions leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings.[1] Anecdotal evidence, as well as research, suggests that attempting to suppress thoughts as a self-control strategy basically boomerangs, often bringing to mind the particular preoccupation or obsession it is intended to avoid [2] (whatever you do, don’t think about a brown bear).

One study compared the subjective and physiological effects of emotional suppression and acceptance in a sample of 60 individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group listened to a rationale for suppressing emotions and the other listened to a rationale for accepting emotions. While watching an emotion-provoking film both groups reported similar levels of subjective distress, however, during the post-film recovery period the acceptance group displayed less negative affect. Moreover, the suppression group showed increased heart rate and the acceptance group decreased heart rate in response to the film.[3]

We need acknowledgment and validation that our emotional experience—whatever it may be—is legitimate. This is essential to being present and emotionally available, which is really the most helpful thing we do for anyone we care about it.

Validating/Respectful/Helpful Things to Say:

  • “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”
  • “I can see that you’re stressed.”
  • “I’m sorry that you have to go through this.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to be helpful?”
  • “I’m here for you—no matter what.”
  • “Be kind to yourself.”
  • “What do you need to do to take care of yourself?”
  • “Suffering is a part of life and you are not alone.”

Common misperceptions about life that exacerbate mental and emotional suffering include that we “should” be happy, that life should be as we want it, and that it shouldn’t be messy, uncertain, confusing, or painful. In this way, attempting to avoid suffering creates suffering. Seeking happiness is a prescription for unhappiness.

It’s important to honor the reality of our emotions by acknowledging them, allowing ourselves to feel them, and move through them—or (perhaps more accurately) allow them to move through us—rather than expending energy to avoid them or being overwhelmed by and acting out on them. In this way, we accept the totality of our emotional life. This is the essence of self-acceptance. And, it is only when we can truly accept ourselves—the light and the dark, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, that we have access to wholeness, health, and healing.

Copyright 2020 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.

References

[1] Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021156

[2] Wegner DM, Schneider DJ, Carter SR 3rd, White TL. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987 Jul;53(1):5-13. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.53.1.5. PMID: 3612492.

[3]  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.10.001