Have you ever been in a situation where you got laid off, had your heart broken, or going through a rough day, and the people around you tell you to “stay positive,” “it could be worse,” or “everything happens for a reason”? When life isn’t treating so well, and friends and family come to our aid by reminding us to just stay focus, and we’ll be back on our feet in no time. We know for a fact that they mean well, and they never meant to hurt our feelings. However, this false sense of positivity can be harmful when it is insincere, forceful, or invalidates our feelings of fear, sadness, anxiety, or hardship. This false sense of encouragement is what we call toxic positivity.
What is Toxic Positivity?
In the age of social media, we are often bombarded with posts from our friends and family about “having a positive attitude” or “always being grateful and only seeing the light in everything.” While there is nothing wrong with it, toxic positivity emerges from the concept that being only positive is the correct way to live our lives. It should be taught that avoiding or denying negative emotions could result in them growing bigger and that act itself is simply unsustainable. Yes, we should be grateful for what we have. However, we should not dwell on what we lost. Regardless, merely reminding ourselves does not negate that we lost something precious or that our current situation is awful.
Evolutionarily, humans can’t program themselves to only have feelings of happiness and gratitude. Staying positive may be necessary, but by avoiding difficult or negative emotions, you are losing valuable information. Our emotions are information; for example, when you feel fear, you have a heightened sense of self and are more aware of your surroundings. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had friends who always portray this seemingly perfect life. While I’m sure that is not the case, I found myself growing distant from them as they come across as less approachable, relatable, and difficult to connect with. Imagine trying to have a sincere and meaningful conversation with someone who denies sadness and anxiety?
Remember That It’s Ok To Not To Be Ok – It’s Actually Normal
As human beings, it is unnatural for us to choose only the emotions we want to feel. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that allowing ourselves to feel our feelings, painful or not, will help keep us grounded. Especially in unprecedented times, such as the pandemic we’re in, it encourages us to wear a mask and social distance. It is normal for anxiety to surface in abnormal situations; hence, learn to remove the expectation and goal of feeling positive all the time. Instead:
1. Avoid ignoring or bottling up your emotions
Stop rejecting your negative emotions. Instead, acknowledge how you feel, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. Deal with them by talking about it to people you trust or writing it in a journal. According to a brain imaging study at UCLA, putting your feelings into words could help reduce the intensity of negative emotions like anger, sadness, or pain.
2. Listen and validate how others feel — even if you don’t understand them
Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, so it is no one, not even your, rights to shame them for feeling a certain way. Note that others may not cope with difficult situations the way you do; hence, help them by offering gentle nudges or suggestions. Otherwise, it is good to provide them support over unsolicited advice.
3. It’s ok to be wary of toxic positivity messages
Simple messages such as “Choose happiness” or “Positive vibes only” may seem innocent, but when you’re in a rough patch, the meaning behind them actually dismisses your genuine emotions. Basically, if the message is that positivity is the only or best way to go, that’s problematic, especially on social media, where people rarely post their flaws and only show themselves at their best. As a result, social media gives off an impression where everyone is doing better than you. So, protect yourself from this sense of loneliness, shame, and embarrassment by distancing yourself from these people and unplug before these unrealistic expectations start to haunt you again.