Toxic positivity, or the phenomenon of forced positivity in response to negative emotions, can pose as a serious threat to mental health. This can look like denying negativity, focusing solely on positive things, and downplaying challenges or misfortunes. Suppressing negative emotions can cause harm and lead to a lack of authenticity or emotional closure. Instead, you can validate feelings, avoid punishing statements, practice mindfulness, talk to a loved one, and seek professional support if it is necessary.
At the beginning of the pandemic, you may have seen posts on social media that read along these lines:
“If you don’t use the quarantine to develop a new skill, learn a new language or start a business, you didn’t lack the time – you lacked the discipline.”
While well-meaning, the concept that you have no excuse for not making the most of every negative situation is an example of positivity gone overboard. Negative emotions are real and deserve to be addressed just like positive emotions. The suggestion that a global pandemic, civil unrest and the confluence of countless social and personal challenges add up to a good opportunity to learn a new language is discounting the significant trauma, anxiety and depression that people across the world are grappling with. Let’s examine how the idea of only being positive can be toxic.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is a term used to describe the phenomenon of forced positivity as a response to genuine negative emotions. “Good vibes only” is a nice idea, but it fails to leave room for the expression and processing of a legitimate part of the human experience.
In the context of mental health, toxic positivity can pose a serious threat to emotional stability. Just like substance use turns into abuse when it begins to interfere with other parts of your life, positivity can become toxic when it is forcefully used to downplay, delegitimize or undervalue negative emotions.
Toxic positivity can look like this:
- Feeling guilty or ashamed of having negative feelings.
- Relentlessly focusing on the positive, such as the things you should be grateful for, without validating your challenges or misfortunes.
- Saying that other people have it worse off, so you shouldn’t complain.
- Saying something like, “Feeling [sad/anxious/hopeless] doesn’t get you anywhere.”
- Responding to negative emotions by saying “it is what it is” or “just move on.”
- Statements that deny negativity entirely, such as “Failure is not an option,” “Everything happens for a reason” or “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Why Are Negative Thoughts Important?
Accepting and processing your negative emotions can be significantly better for your mental health than ignoring or downplaying them. Research has shown that people who handle difficult feelings with avoidance or repression can end up in a worse psychological state in the long run. Pushing aside your negative thoughts and replacing them with forced positivity doesn’t simply make them go away. Keeping sadness, anger, frustration and other feelings at arm’s length may lead you to vent in other ways, from substance use to risky behavior. The best thing you can do for your mental health is to work through your negative thoughts to attain emotional closure and openness within your mind.
Beyond creating internal dissonance, suppressing your emotions can cause you to no longer live authentically. Making a habit of forced positivity can distance you from your true wants and needs. This can create lasting rifts in your relationships with yourself and others. Without legitimate lows, your highs may become flat and you may have a harder time experiencing real joy. Though avoidance may work in the short term, it only sets you up for emotional trouble later on.
Healthy Alternatives to Toxic Positivity
Instead of steamrolling negative emotions with positivity, try adopting some of the following methods for managing difficult feelings:
- Validate your feelings. Instead of responding to negativity with denial, shame or forced positivity, recognize how you feel by saying, “Yes, I do feel this way. Yes, this is a difficult time. What can I do to make it better?”
- Practice meditation and mindfulness exercises. Give yourself the chance to sit with your emotions and observe the state of your mind before rushing to react. You don’t have to control or manage every feeling you have as it arises. Let yourself breathe.
- Don’t add fuel to the fire. Avoid responding to negativity with punishing statements. Don’t say, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but…” or “It’s stupid, but I feel…” Your emotions are valid. Acknowledge them without reservation.
- Talk to a loved one. The people who truly care for you should be able to respond to negative emotions with sympathy and assurance, not denial or downplaying. Opening up to someone about how you feel can let you process your feelings internally and gives them the chance to respond with acceptance.
If negative feelings accumulate to the point that they begin to interfere with your daily life and you find yourself concerned for your mental well-being, don’t hesitate – reach out for professional support. Anxiety, depression, substance use, trauma, extreme stress and suicidal ideation have all dramatically increased over the course of the pandemic. Your feelings are real and if they’re strong enough, they may benefit from mental health care. There’s no minimum qualifier for how sad you have to be; if your emotions are affecting you in a way that you don’t feel able to manage on your own, contact someone who can help.
While it’s always worth looking on the bright side, that shouldn’t mean repressing your negative emotions. Working through difficult feelings productively will allow you to acknowledge every part of yourself, not just the ones that you think contribute to an appealing persona. To strengthen your skill in healthily processing negativity, reach out for professional guidance. At Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford, New Jersey, we provide compassionate care designed to help you overcome your substance use disorder obstacles and become the person you want to be. We use effective treatments and evidence-based practices to craft an individualized approach for getting you back on your feet. Negative emotions are a part of life and they’re more prevalent than ever before for many people right now. Learning to handle those negative emotions will lead you to more lasting positivity than any amount of inhibition. Take care of yourself. It’s an investment in your future happiness. Call us at (877) 557-5372 to learn more.