toxic positivity

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Do you feel pressure from your partner to be happy or “get over it” when you’re struggling? Does your best friend dismiss or minimize your difficult feelings? When you’re hurt, does your mom say, “You should be grateful” or “Look on the bright side?” You might be dealing with toxic positivity that leaves you feeling resentful, guilty or even ashamed, but I’m here to help with my not-so-secret secret to turning these relationships around so you can feel heard and truly cared for!

What is Toxic Positivity?

It’s the belief that no matter how horrible or difficult a situation is, you should have a positive attitude or mindset. It’s when someone only sees or acknowledges the good in any situation and makes no room for negative or unwanted emotions. Basically, it’s an unhealthy approach to positive thinking.

Toxic positivity is a defense mechanism. It’s deployed by people because they’re uncomfortable with difficult emotions and they’re avoiding them at all costs. Toxic positivity doesn’t feel good because it’s not coming from a place of love and generosity; it’s coming from a place of avoidance, anxiety and fear. You’re picking up on the other person’s true motivation and that’s why it doesn’t feel good!

Why Does Someone Have Toxic Positivity?

Specifically, toxic positivity is an avoidance defense mechanism! The person is avoiding feeling certain feelings. They’re also avoiding vulnerability and a deeper emotional connection. This is not because they’re a horrible person but because they have their own pain.

Is toxic positivity happening in one of your relationships? Here are some signs:

  • You feel pressure from a loved one to be happy or “get over it” when you’re struggling
  • Your loved one says things when you’re sad or angry and you experience guilt
  • When you express more negative emotions you get shut down
  • Conversations with your loved one end with you feeling like there’s something wrong with you for having your emotions.
  • You find you need to hide any painful emotions you’re having when you’re around certain people
  • When things are hard, the other person starts giving you platitudes like, “Turn that frown upside down,” “just stay positive,” “look on the bright side,” “everything happens for a reason” or “be grateful for what you have”
  • Feeling dismissed when you share difficult feelings and being told in that moment, “Happiness is a choice”
  • Having your feelings minimized by someone else: “I don’t know why you feel so bad about what your mom said. It wasn’t that big a deal.”
  • When another person completely ignores problems or issues in your relationship
  • When you walk away after a conversation with this person feeling invalidated, ignored, dismissed or shamed

What to Do!

Step 1: Bring everyone to the here and now!

You need to be present in what you’re feeling and you want to start training the other person to also be present in what they’re feeling when you share your emotions. This is the piece that gets missed. Folks start with validation but the validation doesn’t feel “real” because it’s coming from fear (the other person’s discomfort) not love (knowing all is OK in the moment and there’s nothing to fear).

Ask, “How are they feeling right now?” You’re having x emotion, but how are they feeling?

Step 2: Listen and Validate

For you, I want you to normalize whatever difficult emotions you’re having. Everyone has them! It’s OK!

With the other person, let them know that now that they’re present with you in this moment, all you’re looking for is for them to listen and be in your shoes for a moment. It’s not about them understanding why you feel this way (that gets people into fix-it mode). It’s about understanding that you feel this way and you have every right to your feelings whether they agree or not.

People with good mental health don’t think about their emotions as good or bad, they don’t judge their feelings, and they don’t avoid their emotions. Practicing being in the here and now with them, on both sides, will improve your relationships and create more emotional closeness.

RESOURCES

8 Rules for Giving Great Feedback

RESEARCH

Allyson Chiu, “Time to Ditch ‘Toxic Positivity,’ Experts Say: ‘It’s Okay Not to Be Okay,’” Washington Post, August 19,2020.

Claire Eagleson et al., “The Power of Positive Thinking: Pathological Worry is Reduced by Thought Replacement in Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 78 (March 2016): 13-18.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?,” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 6 (2005): 803-855.

Eric S. Kim et al., “Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology 185, no. 1 (January 2017): 21-29.

 

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