“Everything happens for a reason. Always look on the bright side! It could always be worse!”
In the face of adversity, we often hear such well-intentioned positive phrases thrown our way to comfort us. Whether we cynically brush them off as meaningless platitudes or take them more seriously, positivity at the expense of acknowledging real pain can be harmful. This is toxic positivity, an insidious trend that can undermine our mental health.
Understanding Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity represents an obsessive focus on positive thinking. While, in theory, it sounds great to “let go of all the bad things and only embrace the good,” it can result in the silencing of genuine negative emotions and prevent us from processing our feelings properly.
The insinuation that we must be upbeat, regardless of our experiences, can lead us to ignore our true feelings and create a barrier to seeking support. Toxic positivity is presented as a one-size-fits-all approach to life’s challenges; however, our emotional well-being is much more complex than that.
How Toxic Positivity Hurts
The dangers of toxic positivity are far-reaching. Though it takes many shapes, at its core, toxic positivity encourages the dismissal or denial of true emotions and creates a veneer of positivity to mask or circumvent potential pain. Perhaps it’s guilt or shame for experiencing negative feelings. Maybe it’s the tendency to deny any feeling of sadness, and replace them with forced smiles and positivity. It could manifest as statements denying negativity, like, “failure is not an option” or “don’t worry, be happy.”
Being relentlessly positive can prevent us from addressing serious issues or mental health concerns. Moreover, demanding constant positivity from others can offer insufficient support or even stigmatize those struggling. It’s well documented that trauma can leave a lasting legacy in our bodies and minds, and by insisting on relentless positivity, we risk leaving survivors of trauma feeling as though their experiences are unimportant or unseen.
Toxic positivity creates a culture of isolation and stigma. It inadvertently sends the message that sharing our struggles is a weakness. In turn, this can prevent us from seeking the help we need and cause us to harbor feelings of shame and loneliness. One study found that positive psychology exacerbated harm in abusive relationships, with empathy, acceptance, and forgiveness helping to perpetuate this cycle.
The Human Emotional Rainbow: Embracing the Darker Shades
Negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, or sadness, are as valuable and normal as positive ones. These feelings are our internal compass that indicate when something’s wrong and signal for us to pause, reflect, and take appropriate action.
Negativity, contrary to its general perception, plays a crucial role in our emotional health, and avoidance or repression of such emotions can lead to poor psychological health in the long run. Unexpressed emotions don’t just fade away; they lurk in the corners of our minds, accumulate over time, and potentially lead to harmful coping strategies, such as substance misuse or risky behaviors.
Breaking Free: Alternatives to Toxic Positivity
There is a way to find a happy medium – to be positive without being toxic. After all, numerous studies show the benefits of positive thinking and emotional acceptance. We can:
- Acknowledge the difficult times, accept negative feelings without judgment, and start to think about ways to improve the situation. Rather than saying to someone, “you’ll get over it soon,” use supportive collective language such as, “It’s OK to struggle, I support you and I’m here for you” or “I know this has been tough – how can I help?”
- Refrain from using punishing statements. While feelings are valid, they don’t have to define you, so don’t dismiss them with self-deprecating language.
- Allow yourself to experience feelings and emotions without rushing to react. Breathing exercises can help regulate our emotional state by reducing anxiety and stimulating the vagus nerve.
Most importantly, if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you trust or to consult a professional. No person is an island, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in seeking help and prioritizing your own well-being.
On the Horizon: A World Embracing Emotional Authenticity
It’s natural and human to feel a range of emotions, and it’s perfectly okay to not be okay. All feelings are valid, and they do not need to be packaged into an attractive facade of constant positivity. In the face of adversity, not only is it acceptable to recognize and express our genuine emotions, it is also essential to growth.
When we shift our perspective and embrace a more balanced emotional outlook, we make room for authentic interactions, increased self-understanding, and better mental health. When we normalize the expression of all feelings – not just the positive ones – we help create a culture that values emotional honesty and opens doors to more genuine connections and overall well-being.
Our journey towards emotional authenticity starts with understanding the dangers of toxic positivity and the importance of embracing our true feelings. You don’t need to force a smile in the storm; but you can learn to dance in the rain.
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