“Just think positively!”
“It could be worse.”
“You should look at the bright side!”
We’ve all heard (and maybe used) these phrases without much thought, but they could be contributing to a culture of toxic positivity.
For those new to this term, it might sound like an oxymoron. How can positivity be toxic? Isn’t it supposed to be helpful or “positive” as the name suggests?
According to experts, too much constant, forced positivity can lead to the opposite and have a negative effect.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is when somebody avoids all negative thoughts or feelings, pretending everything is going well when it is not,” explains Melissa Dowd, a therapist at PlushCare, a virtual health platform for primary care and mental health services.
Whitney Goodman, licensed psychotherapist and author of “Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy,” describes toxic positivity as the “unrelenting pressure to be happy and positive, no matter what the circumstances are.”
This is something we may bring onto ourselves by not allowing negative thoughts and feelings, but it’s also something we can cause other people to experience.
Expressing toxic positivity to others may look like offering them a simple solution for a complicated problem that we know nothing about or not allowing people around you to appropriately express negative sentiments.
While this can come up in many different scenarios, some common occurrences of toxic positivity happen around infertility and parenthood as well as mental health challenges.
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Why is toxic positivity harmful?
It causes us to suppress our emotions, which can make them worse.
“They become more intense and can also lead to long-lasting health concerns in the future,” Goodman says.
Although it can be helpful to look on the bright side when facing challenges, Dowd says, not coping with negative feelings in a healthy way in the moment can lead to those feelings “resurfacing later in different areas of your life or as a form of anxiety.”
Toxic positivity also disrupts connection.
“If I feel like you’re going to dismiss me, I’m going to stop sharing how I’m feeling,” Goodman adds. “I think this is why we see mental health stigma.”
It can also keeps us stuck on a macro scale when we deny issues and try will them away with positive thinking.
“We see a lot of people in power using this type of positivity rhetoric to silence particularly marginalized people or tell them what they’re dealing with isn’t real,” Goodman says.
For example, remember that viral ‘Imagine’ video in quarantine? Gal Gadot acknowledged it ‘didn’t transcend’ as critics called it tone deaf.
Are there ways to avoid toxic positivity?
If you’re using toxic positivity against yourself, Goodman suggests remembering it’s OK if you’re upset about something. It’s valid if something annoys you.
“Allow ourselves and other people to share when they’re going through a difficult time,” she says.
Dowd adds it’s essential that “we all learn to cope with and process our emotions in a healthy way as opposed to avoiding how we feel” as life’s stressors continue to rise.
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