What Is Toxic Positivity?
Imagine that you just lost your job. You’re in full panic mode. Your mind is racing, and you have no idea what you’re going to do next.
You decide to share this with a friend. They glance your way and smile. It looks like they are keying up to tell you something big. Could this be the validation you need right now? Maybe they know of a great job opportunity? You watch them fidget as they pull from the depths of their inner wisdom and say, “At least you have all this time off now! It could be so much worse. Think about how much you’re going to learn from this.”
Toxic positivity has officially entered the building.
You freeze and think, Are they even listening to me? Am I seriously supposed to be grateful that I just lost my job?
You’re not sure where to go from here. You don’t feel grateful, so how in the world are you supposed to respond? You were already stressed out, and now this conversation leaves you feeling totally misunderstood. So, you put aside your feelings and say, “Yeah, thanks.”
Now you’re not only jobless, but you also feel distant from your friend and ashamed that you can’t just look on the bright side.
But Isn’t Positivity Always a Good Thing?
When used correctly, it’s great. Experts agree that positive feelings like gratitude, contentment, optimism, and self-confidence can lengthen our lives and improve our health. Many of these claims are exaggerated, but there is value in positive thinking. People who report having more positive feelings are more likely to have a rich social life, to be more active, and to engage in more health-promoting behaviors. I think we can all agree that it is healthy to feel “positive” when it comes from a genuine place.
But somewhere along the way, we constructed this idea that being a “positive person” means you’re a robot who has to see the good in literally everything. We force positivity on ourselves because society tells us to, and anything less is a personal failure. Negativity is seen as the enemy, and we chastise ourselves and the people around us when they succumb to it. If you’re not positive, you’re simply not trying hard enough. If you’re not positive, you’re a drag to be around.
Healthy positivity means making space for both reality and hope. Toxic positivity denies an emotion and forces us to suppress it. When we use toxic positivity, we are telling ourselves and others that this emotion shouldn’t exist, it’s wrong, and if we try just a little bit harder, we can eliminate it entirely.
Positivity becomes toxic when used:
- in conversations where someone is looking for support, validation, or compassion and instead is met with a platitude.
- to shame people into feeling like they’re not doing enough, working hard enough, or that their difficult emotions are invalid.
- to shame ourselves for not being happy enough or positive enough.
- to deny our reality.
- to gaslight or silence someone who has legitimate concerns or questions.
- to tell people everything bad in their life is their fault.
Stop Shaming Yourself
This is what toxic positivity does to us. It traps us in a life of pretending until we can’t do it anymore. It tells us that if someone has it worse, we can’t be sad. If there’s something to be grateful for, gratitude must be the only emotion. It tells you that you should be happy and that you should be over this by now. It leaves you hiding behind a mass of fake joy, isolated and alone. Toxic positivity increases feelings of shame, inadequacy, and isolation. It might originate from good intentions, but it doesn’t do us any favors.
There Are No Negative Emotions
Toxic positivity and the relentless pressure to use positive affirmations tells us that there are certain emotions we should feel, like happiness and joy, and others that we should absolutely avoid, like anger and disgust. There are thousands of books, videos, and websites dedicated to helping people eradicate all forms of emotional negativity from their lives. The goal is to reach this beautiful place where your thoughts are peaceful and joyous, your mind is clear, and nothing upsets you.
Spoiler alert: this place doesn’t exist.
Emotions are an involuntary response to environmental stimuli and we don’t have full control over our emotional experience. With proper skills training and a well-regulated nervous system, we can learn how to respond to our emotions and augment our behavior, but we will never have full control over what we feel. This type of behavioral control may be even more challenging for people who have experienced trauma, have a disorder that leads to nervous system dysregulation, or who do not have adequate skills to manage their emotions. You are never consciously saying to yourself, “Hmm, I think I’ll get scared when that car slams on its brakes!” You are simply reacting.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no negative emotions. There are only emotions that are harder to experience or that cause more distress for certain people, and the more you suppress those emotions, the harder they are to manage.
Instead of learning how to get rid of challenging emotions, we need to learn how to sit with, process, and live with them.
How to Process an Emotion
Instead of suppressing your emotions, you can work on the more adaptive skills of labeling, feeling, and sharing your emotions with others.
#1 Labeling Your Emotions
Simply knowing what emotion you’re experiencing and being able to give it a label can transform your emotional experience and help you feel more at ease. Psychologist Matthew Lieberman conducted a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of participants. The researchers found that when the participants labeled the emotions they felt using words, they showed less activity in the amygdala—an area of the brain associated with emotional distress. They proposed that verbalizing an emotion and labeling it suppresses the area of the brain that produces emotional pain.
- Take a moment to sit with your body. You can lie down or sit comfortably. Find a way to make yourself feel grounded. It may help to have your back against something firm like a wall or a chair and have your feet planted firmly on the ground.
- With your eyes open or closed—again, whatever feels safest and most comfortable for you—start to scan your body from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Take a moment to notice any sensations that are popping up for you.
- When you notice a spot where there is tension or a sense of relaxation, don’t do anything about it. Just notice it. No judgment, no questions, no analysis.
- Is there a spot in your body where the sensation is more intense? Can you go to that spot and really examine it? What sensations are you experiencing? Is it getting less or more intense?
- Now take a moment to ground yourself in the present moment. Look around at your surroundings and ground yourself in your body. You’ve just completed your body check-in.
This exercise will help you check in with your body and learn more about what it feels like to experience those sensations. If you
have been numbing out or really disconnected, you might not feel anything the first time you do this. That’s OK, keep practicing.
- If you could give this emotion a name, what would it be?
- If this sensation in your body could talk, what do you think it would say?
- Does this feel like something you have felt before? If yes, what did you call it then?
- How would you describe this feeling?
- Let’s try it out. When you say “I feel _______,” does that seem right?
- When you choose a feeling word, say “I feel _______.” Try to avoid saying “I am (the feeling).”
#2 How to Feel Your Emotions and Feelings
When we talk about “feeling” our feelings, what we’re really saying is that you have to allow yourself to experience the full breadth of the emotion and allow it to rise, peak, and then fall. You have to allow your body to complete the stress cycle and decide how you’d like to deal with this feeling or emotion. There are many ways to actually experience your feelings and emotions; most of them are not calculated, intellectual decisions. They also have to happen in the body.
Following is a list of ways to experience that emotion.
- Move: Go for a walk, stretch, move your body in a way that feels right for you.
- Breathe: Deep, slow breaths help regulate the stress response. You might want to use an app on your phone or practice this with your therapist.
- Connect: Get out in public around people and have casual, positive interactions. Even just smiling at the barista making your coffee and saying “Thank you” helps.
- Laugh: This helps create and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions. You can laugh with friends or watch a funny video to help you laugh.
- Touch: Hug or kiss someone who you like and trust. You can also wrap your arms around your chest to give yourself a hug. Safe physical touch helps regulate the nervous system.
- Journal: Writing about your feelings has been shown to help people manage their emotions, process them, and make better decisions.
- Cry: A tried-and-true method that really works and has cathartic effects for us mentally and physically.
- Talk it out: Processing something emotionally with a trusted person or professional can be really helpful and allows you to tap into that labeling skill. This may also help with decision making and safe emotional processing.
- Express yourself creatively: Art, writing a poem, or using your hands to create can be extremely helpful for processing emotions.
- Complete a task: Getting into a flow state while cooking, cleaning, gardening, or doing something with your hands can create a sense of accomplishment and help you eliminate some racing thoughts.
- Listen to music: Music has been shown to elevate your mood and motivation and reduce stress. Listen to something inspiring, calming, or that elicits an emotion you’re trying to experience.
- Sleep: When used correctly, this can be a great way to process an emotion. Sleeping and then attending to an emotion can be an effective way to cool down.
- Just feel it: This is a skill that may take some time, but it’s very helpful. Sometimes the feeling doesn’t mean anything and you don’t need to act. So you just sit with it and allow it to peak, then slowly pass. The more often you’re able to do this, the easier it will be for feelings to not compound and become overwhelming.
Sometimes you have to postpone feeling a feeling because you’re at work or dealing with your kids. Not every feeling can be felt fully in the moment and that’s OK. What is important is that you’re factoring in moments throughout your week to attend to your emotions and really experience them.
#3 How to Share Your Emotions and Feelings
You don’t have to share your emotions with everyone, and there are certain people and environments that aren’t conducive to productive emotional sharing. Some people do not have the skills to help you through a difficult time.
Here are some guidelines for sharing your emotions with others.
Pick a safe person to share with. Signs of a safe person:
- I can share my feelings without fear of the relationship ending or punishment.
- This person respects my boundaries.
- This person encourages me to grow, change, and better myself.
- This person respects my boundaries around my body and physical touch.
- I can usually be vulnerable around this person.
- This person admits when they are wrong and is open to feedback.
- This person refrains from using criticism and contempt to attack me or make me feel less than.
- This person listens to me.
- This person has the bandwidth and experience to help me through this issue.
- I feel comfortable discussing this topic with this person.
Pick the right time and place.
Consider your environment before sharing. Think about where you are and if it is a safe space for you and the person receiving the information. Loud or crowded spaces may suddenly feel unsafe. Evaluate your surroundings and check in with yourself often. It’s also OK to take your time. You are not required to finish a story or move quickly.
Remember to respect your own boundaries and the boundaries of others. We never know what someone else has been through and how they will receive certain information.
Communicate what you need from the other person.
- “I really need to vent right now.”
- “I’m looking for some advice. Can you help me?”
- “I honestly just need someone to listen. It’s been a rough week.”
It would be nice if people always knew what we wanted, but they usually don’t. Try to help them out with what your expectations are, how they can be helpful, and what you need from this emotional share.
Remember that the other person’s reaction does not invalidate your emotional experience.
If they dismiss you, ignore your needs, or aren’t validating, it’s OK. This doesn’t mean you did something wrong. You may need to choose another person to share with or speak with a therapist. Don’t let this stop you from sharing.
You don’t have to love every part of your life, and even when you do, you still might need more or want more. You do not have to accept less or being treated poorly in the name of gratitude. Allow yourself to be grateful for what is and hopeful for what could be.
Final Note: Reminders About Being Human
Toxic positivity is all around us, and it’s important that we don’t view everything happy or positive as toxic. Remember, positivity isn’t toxic, it becomes toxic.
So, if you see a sign in a restaurant that says Good Vibes, that’s probably OK. You’re there to have a good time! Toxic positivity would be telling your friend who is depressed, “You really need to work on your bad vibes, they’re bringing me down.” See the difference?
Not all positivity, happiness, or good vibes are bad. Remember to look out for the timing, audience, and topic that you’re discussing. This is the best way to identify if something is toxic positivity.