When my dad died recently many tried to comfort me with the words, “He’s in a better place now,” or “have strength.” The latter particularly irritated me — it suggested that with strength and optimism I would get over the great loss. It was uttered to me by nearly everyone at his funeral. Of course, their hearts were in the right place but the optimistic advice was not beneficial for my well-being. Instead, every time I cried I felt it was a moment of weakness.
Think back to a time when a loved one or friend was feeling down. Did you ever say something along the lines of: “Cheer up, it’ll be OK,” or worse, “Cheer up, it may never happen”? If so, then I’m afraid to tell you, that’s toxic positivity.
It may seem brutal to label well-intentioned comments as toxic, but the truth is that dismissing negative emotions with false reassurances, rather than empathy, can have a harmful impact on mental health and relationships.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is the assumption that despite our emotional pain or challenges in life, we should only have a positive mindset,” says Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist and education director at The LightHouse. “When positivity is used to invalidate, deny or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic.”
Don't get it wrong, the last thing being suggested is to adopt a constantly pessimistic approach. It’s great to have a positive outlook. However, when life causes us to deal with painful emotions, this is when we need to start being honest.
“When difficult things happen, it is important to acknowledge our feelings and those of others instead of glossing over them,” says Mirna Iwaza, clinical hypnotherapist and relationship coach at Miracles Dubai. “Acknowledging and allowing your true feelings to surface is very therapeutic in the moment, and can be more helpful to your mental health than hanging on to unrelatable optimistic opinions and beliefs.
“Forcing a positive spin on everything can give you an unrealistic outlook and may force people to reject your advice or feel unheard or uncomfortable in your presence.”
10 tell-tale signs that you are living with toxic positivity
Toxic positivity-associated traits to look out for:
- You hide how you really feel emotionally
- You dismiss feelings that aren’t positive
- You feel shame when you have negative emotions
- You focus on the positive aspects of a painful situation
- You refuse to let anyone see you unhappy, only revealing the upbeat version of yourself
- You are easily irritated by those who struggle to be positive
- You shame others for showing vulnerabilities
- You “just get on with it” and are angry when others don’t
- You struggle to quit projects or relationships when their time is up
- You say phrases such as “it could be worse”
What are the impacts of toxic positivity?
Toxic positive behaviour does not allow you to heal or experience authentic happiness, which can have long-term consequences. Iwaza says, “Whenever you catch yourself expecting to be positive all the time at all costs, or if you keep repeating and living by cliches such as, ‘Tears are for losers’ or, ‘Failure is not an option’ you need to stop and remember to be more gentle with yourself and show yourself more compassion.
“Give yourself the safe space to feel and heal, instead of living in toxic positivity and denying yourself the reality of your own feelings.”
Inhibiting feelings can lead to excessive emotional baggage which, in turn, leads to longer-lasting deeper issues including anxiety, detachment and low self-esteem, often resulting in high levels of stress and burnout. Iwaza says, “All of this takes its toll on the body and can manifest in lowered energy levels, sleep issues, lowered immunity, allergies and more.”
The simple fact is, authentic happiness cannot be achieved in the absence of negative feelings — there needs to be a balance. By accepting life’s highs and lows, we start to appreciate it more.
What causes toxic behaviour?
Kritzas believes people resort to toxic positivity for one of three main reasons. The first is a lack of self-awareness; we may not realise that we are being dismissive of our feelings and may genuinely believe that by saying “look on the bright side” is helpful.
The second is an individual's struggle to sit with difficult emotions. It may be too painful to comfort with our own difficult feelings, let alone try to comfort others who are struggling to deal with a challenging situation. The final reason is a lack of empathetic skills. When we struggle to connect to the pain that others are experiencing, we will most likely minimise or play down their experiences.
How to break the cycle of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity is a mindset, which means it can be changed. “Take your time to lick your wounds then emerge at your own pace,” advises Iwaza. “The only way to truly heal is to go through the dark emotion itself. Mindfulness allows you to just do that. It gives you the safe space to sit with the emotion and make your way through it, and allows you to embrace the experience in the way that is just right for you. The bottom line is to know that it is possible to feel sad and to have a positive and optimistic outlook at the same time.”
Instead of striving to be positive, aim to be a realistic optimist, says Kritzas. “This is someone who is able to acknowledge their current circumstances while still experiencing a sense of calm and contentment about the outcome. It is someone who is able to recognise when they are in a dark tunnel, admit it, but have hope there is light at the end.’”
Acknowledging and validating our own feelings and those of others is a key to being healthily optimistic. Kritzas also advises adopting a growth mindset. “Instead of viewing setbacks and failures as the opposite of success, start viewing them as part of your success,” she says. “When we view failures as lessons which we can learn from, we start experiencing personal growth at a rapid rate.”
Ultimately, when It comes to eliminating toxic positivity from our lives, the most important thing to remember is that it is OK, to not be OK. Life shouldn’t be one long relentless grind of positivity. We simply need to be in whatever state we are in: happy, sad, somewhere in the middle. Life has peaks and troughs, and our emotions should reflect that.