Close to a decade ago, when I was going through a particularly dark time, a friend suggested that I reframe my traumatic experience and focus on what I’m grateful for. I nodded, wiped my tears, and began to direct my attention to the positive side of the situation: I was alive, the people I loved were alive, I still had a roof over my head, and food to eat. As time went on, though, I was surprised that what I felt wasn’t relief.
It wasn’t peace. It was anger.
Toxic positivity is the idea that someone’s pain or challenges can be easily overcome should they only have a more positive mindset.
Suppressing difficult emotions won’t support your healing process. Yet, we tell people all the time, especially women, to adopt a more positive mindset, to practice being more grateful, to silverline experiences without giving them space to be upset. Having a positive attitude in and of itself is not the problem, it’s the dismissal of difficult emotions. By doing this, either to yourself or others, you inadvertently send the message that difficult emotions are “bad.” However, there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion. Every emotion is valid and important.
Here are four ways to avoid toxic positivity:
1. Be Authentic
When Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, thinks about toxic positivity, she thinks about using positivity for secondary gain. By being overly positive to win over friends or influence people at work, when that’s not a true reflection of how you’re feeling, you may risk sending mixed messages. “It doesn’t feel whole hearted,” explained Rice, “which has the opposite effect of genuine positivity.”
Rice’s remarks remind me of people-pleasing and how, even though we’re told the nicest thing we can do for someone is to agree with them, in reality, the nicest thing we can do for someone is to be authentic. That’s all we can ever ask of ourselves, to show up as our full self and speak from the heart. It might not be what the other person wants to hear but at least we aren’t betraying ourselves.
2. Don’t Bottle Up Your Feelings
How many times have you had a tough day at work and then taken it out on your partner? I used to do this so often that my husband and I established a rule that neither of us would talk about work for the first hour we were home together.
According to Rice, it’s impossible to bottle up our feelings forever. Sooner or later, we’ll burst. “We can be fake or incongruent with how we actually feel,” shared Rice, “but it’s certainly time limited.” In other words, if you wait to express your feelings until you are in a setting that feels safe, there’s a lot of build up — higher tensions, higher overwhelm, higher levels of stress, and often this is when explosions occur. There’s a balance between being socially appropriate without being so out of alignment that you end up losing all control of your reactions. Expressing your needs is important.
3. Practice Unconditional Self-Acceptance
Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Derickson MSW, LCSW finds that identifying and accepting your own emotions is key to avoiding toxic positivity. “Avoidance of emotions actually increases feelings of anxiety and depression,” she explained.
Studies confirm Derickson’s statement, showing that people who practice unconditional self-acceptance, a core tenant of rational emotive behavior therapy, a type of cognitive behavior therapy developed by Dr. Albert Ellis — focused on how our thoughts impact our mental well-being — are less likely to develop depression. By practicing unconditional self-acceptance, you are allowing yourself to experience whatever emotions arise — without judgement — and are therefore more likely to bounce back from failure or negative feedback because you can separate your performance from your self-worth.
4. Allow Yourself to Feel Multiple Emotions at Once
There’s nothing worse than feeling bad about feeling bad. As someone who judges myself for not feeling happy all the time, it’s important for me to remember that my emotions don’t have to make sense, that I’m allowed to feel happy and sad at once. These two emotions are not mutually exclusive. “Most emotions are multi-layered,” Derickson says. “We can feel grief, sadness, and relief at the same time.” Derickson cautions people to watch out for negative self-talk and encourages you to remind yourself that it is okay to feel however you feel.
With social media use up by 72% since the start of the pandemic, it’s harder than ever to stay centered and not get sucked into the false idea that everyone else’s life is perfect and you are the only one suffering. No one is coming out of 2020 unscathed. Sure, there is plenty to be grateful for this year. But there is also a lot to be upset about. Gratitude and pain can coexist. There’s no need to sugar-coat your difficult emotions. Masking your true feelings through toxic positivity not only sends the wrong signal to the people around you, it’s damaging to your mental health. If you’re struggling with being honest and communicating genuinely about your emotions, consider speaking with an online therapist — it’s a convenient and flexible option that can put you on the right track today.