What is toxic positivity?

We explore the impact of brushing aside emotions, and not accepting the full range of our feelings.

You’re sitting in a café with a friend, sipping on lattes while talking about your recent break up that’s left you devastated. You saw a future with them, and now they’re suddenly gone. You’re on the verge of bursting into tears, and your friend shifts uncomfortably in her seat.

“Ah well,” they say. “Everything happens for a reason. Now you can move on and find someone better. After all, there’s plenty more fish in the sea!”

The conversation moves on to something else before you’re ready, and you leave feeling like you haven’t really been heard.

Positivity is something we all want to possess. It’s a mindset we often need to motivate us, and to see the brighter side of things. But what happens when that crosses over into becoming something that’s no longer beneficial, and instead a way to suppress appropriate negative feelings in yourself or others?

Toxic positivity is often caused by a discomfort with emotions such as anger, sadness, disappointment, and grief. “Toxic positivity can speak to our desire for all things to be good and in order,” says psychotherapist Andrew Harvey. “This, for some, might provide a feeling of safety and hope, which are positive things. However, the toxicity part can be found if this denies realities, or distorts what is possible.”

This can result in pressure on those who are experiencing things like loss, or mental illness, to look for positives in their situation, or to move on from grief before they are ready. Alternatively, it can be something we impose on ourselves, like forcing ourselves to put on a happy front when inside we’re struggling.

“Toxic positivity can often leave people feeling less than positive,” explains Andrew. “That’s one indicator that what is being shared might not be your truth.”

Toxic positivity places demands on people to get over their difficult feelings without processing them in a healthy way, and it can end up dissuading people from seeking further support, or causing them to feel shame, for having negative thoughts.

The pressure to learn a new skill, or get fit, while trying to survive a pandemic, is a recent example of toxic positivity. Other examples could include: telling people to focus on the good things in their lives, rather than acknowledging their pain; saying “It could be worse”, or minimising, by comparing what they’re going through to a subjectively worse experience; telling someone to ‘just get over it’; dismissing pain by saying that everything happens for a reason; not acknowledging barriers that certain people face.

Toxic positivity doesn’t necessarily sound serious, but it can cause a lot of damage. A 2020 narrative review of 29 studies of domestic violence, found that misdirected or overgeneralised positivity exacerbates harm and abuse. It suggested that optimistic bias can put victims in danger; encouraging resilience, hope, empathy, forgiveness, and acceptance increases the likelihood of victims staying with their abusers and experiencing further, often escalating, abuse.

Another concern is that toxic positivity can encourage people to hide, avoid, or ignore negative emotions. This can cause further distress, and lead those feelings to become even more powerful, coming out in unhealthy and destructive ways. It’s important to talk about these feelings so that we can explore and process them.

Toxic positivity can also mean that problems within relationships are not addressed, leading to communication breakdowns and damage to the relationship. Stigma around mental illness paired with toxic positivity can ensure that someone doesn’t seek the treatment they desperately need. And demeaning other people’s grief or anger can make them feel like no one cares about them, exacerbating their negative emotions further.

It’s important to remember that it’s OK to feel the full spectrum of emotions – both those perceived as positive and negative – and that they are part of being alive. Being able to identify how we’re feeling is crucial to understanding ourselves, and working through those feelings.

Other ways to combat toxic positivity

  1. Talking to people you trust when you need support, or to vent – but respect boundaries, and check that they have the emotional capacity to listen, especially if venting.
  2. Sharing if you don’t feel listened to. You could say something like: “It would really help me if you could listen to my feelings without trying to change them. It’s OK for me to feel sad and I would really like to just talk it through with you.”
  3. Encouraging others to share their feelings honestly as well.
  4. Avoid trying to fix the problem immediately if someone is talking to you about their struggles, and instead focus on listening, understanding, and empathising.

Positivity can be helpful when navigating tough situations, but only when there’s room for difficult feelings, too, and it isn’t at the cost of suppressing them. After all, we can’t be positive all the time.

Sarah Young talks about body confidence, eating disorder recovery, and chronic illness on her Instagram @bodypositivepear

Andrew Harvey is a psychotherapeutic counsellor. Get in touch with him on Counselling Directory.

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