In recent years, our society has had a growing culture of positivity and “good vibes only” thinking. While the intentions behind this thinking may seem well-meaning, it’s essential to acknowledge that not all situations call for positive thinking exclusively. This is known as toxic positivity, and it can be harmful to those struggling with mental health disorders or difficult life situations.
Below, let's take a deeper dive into defining toxic positivity and understanding its negative impact on mental health. Let’s also examine alternative, healthier approaches to take during tough times.
SO, WHAT IS TOXIC POSITIVITY?
In a nutshell, toxic positivity is the belief that one should only express or focus on positive thoughts and emotions, even during difficult situations. This often involves denying or suppressing negative emotions, insisting that everything will be alright, and telling someone to “just think positively” and “look on the bright side.” While a positive outlook can be helpful in many situations, toxic positivity denies reality and ignores the very real experiences of pain and sadness.
Examples of Toxic Positivity
We’ve defined toxic positivity, but what are some examples from daily life? Let’s explore below:
- Jo has recently been through a messy divorce and still has romantic feelings for their ex. They confide in their cousin, Sam, about their feelings, and Sam says, “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”
- Kay has been working extremely hard to earn a promotion, but the position was given to an outside hire. Kay is devastated and angry. They go to a bar with their friend, Riley, and tell them about their experience. Riley says, “Hey, don’t let this get you down – it’ll all work out!”
- Hayden recently went through an emotional breakup after their partner said they no longer felt the chemistry between them. Hayden tells their parent about the reason for the breakup, and their parent says, “Well, you’re still young, and there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
- For the past few months, Alex has been feeling listless, lethargic, and like their once career-driven life is going nowhere. They tell their friend, Pat, about how they’ve been feeling. Pat responds, “Hey, look on the bright side; you make good money. Just start exercising more and focusing on the good things, and you’ll feel better.”
THE NEGATIVE IMPACT OF TOXIC POSITIVITY ON MENTAL HEALTH
Toxic positivity invalidates the experiences of those struggling with mental health disorders and leads to further emotional distress. Someone’s struggle to “be positive” can be the symptom of a mood disorder (like anxiety or depression), for which they may need professional therapy and prescription medication. It is not simply an issue of mind over matter. (See 8 of the Most Harmful Assumptions About Mental Health Disorders.)
Suppressing negative emotions can actually increase anxiety and depression, as it doesn't allow for the processing and release of emotions. It also can make someone believe their emotions are invalid or wrong, making them feel even more isolated and alone in their struggles.
Toxic Positivity Alienates Those in Need of Empathy
Toxic positivity can lead to a lack of empathy for those going through tough times. When someone is constantly told to just “be positive,” it dismisses their feelings and isolates them from others with similar struggles. It can create a culture of silence around difficult topics (like mental disorders or grieving and loss) and make those in need feel like they can’t talk about their feelings. Sadly and ironically, this is the opposite of spreading positivity.
Toxic Positivity Undermines the Experience of Those Who Are Struggling
By insisting on positivity, we downplay the experiences of those going through emotionally and mentally-taxing times. Toxic positivity is a behavior that minimizes the experiences of those struggling with mental illness or a complicated time in their life. It’s a behavior that can also lead to projecting unrealistic and unachievable expectations on others.
A HEALTHIER APPROACH TO TOUGH SITUATIONS
It’s essential to acknowledge that negative emotions are normal, and it’s okay to not always feel positive. Some healthy coping mechanisms for navigating painful emotions include journaling, practicing gratitude, or talking to a trusted friend or mental health professional.
When someone is struggling, see how you can validate their feelings and try to empathize with them. Finding a balance between positive thinking and realistic emotions is crucial because that is what allows for true growth and healing.
“Non-Toxic” Positivity: Things to Say That Are Actually Helpful
Let’s have another look at the examples from above — only this time, let’s see a more helpful, empathetic approach to each situation:
- After going through a messy divorce, Jo still has romantic feelings for their ex. They confide about this to their cousin, Sam. Sam says, “I know you cared about them a lot, and it must be hard without them around. How can I help?”
- After working extremely hard for a promotion, Kay is looked over in favor of an outside hire. Angry and devastated, Kay confides in their friend, Riley. Riley says, “I’m sorry that happened. I would feel exactly the same!”
- After an emotional breakup, Hayden tells their parent that the breakup was because their partner felt like the chemistry between them was gone. Their parent says, “I’m glad you told me what happened, Hayden. I’m sad that it ended like that, and I know it must hurt. I’m always here for you, no matter what. ”
- Alex has felt lethargic, listless, and like their once career-driven life is now directionless and pointless. They tell their friend, Pat, how they’ve been feeling for the past few months. Pat responds, “It sounds like a lot is weighing heavily on your mind. I’m sad that you’ve been going through this for so long. Alex, I’m wondering if talking to a therapist might be helpful. I would hate for you to keep going through this or even start feeling worse.”
Toxic positivity can harm those struggling with mental health disorders or an emotionally taxing situation. Suppression of emotions can lead to further distress, and insisting on positivity can invalidate people’s real experiences of sadness and pain. Positive thinking can be healthy and helpful – but it cannot come at the cost of ignoring the reality of a situation.
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At Red Top Wellness Center, we recognize the importance of mental health awareness and empathy and provide an environment for true healing. We believe in understanding and acknowledging emotions and that healing is a journey that takes time. Our center provides the best environment for mental health treatment, and we believe that every individual deserves to live life to the fullest, with care and compassion.