Do you pride yourself on your positivity? Or does your positivity sometimes slap you in the face? Not every situation merits a positive spin. Facing the facts of devastating circumstances can be challenging. But it’s important to lean into our feelings and emotions to bring healing, or else you'll only spread toxic positivity.
Did you know that toxic positivity denies us of our authentic emotions and can induce feelings of shame and guilt? It's likely that we've all heard comments steeped in toxic positivity, and we have also perpetuated such statements. These comments can deprive us of connecting with ourselves and other humans on a deeper level.
This article will define toxic positivity and suggest 5 ways to help deal with it.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is a destructive manifestation of living in denial and avoiding feelings.
Toxic positivity is about forcing a positive mindset while neglecting any negative thoughts, even though they may be authentic.
Toxic positivity is an obsession with positivity, for example, trying to positively spin a traumatic experience into something weirdly positive.
As the phrase suggests, this type of positivity is toxic.
An essential part of any healing journey is recognizing and processing our emotions. Toxic positivity may also disallow our grief and pressure individuals suffering profoundly to suppress their feelings and put on a happy front.
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Examples of toxic positivity
It's true that positivity and positive thinking have a place in this world. They can help you focus on the good when possible.
But there are times when positive thinking is inappropriate and can be destructive.
People around us often want to help make us feel better about a difficult situation. But their words can often induce feelings of guilt or shame. They can undermine our feelings and cause us to withdraw deeper into our anguish.
Four years ago, I lost my K9 soulmate. It broke me. I can still feel the ripples of grief to this day. I heard all sorts of comments, “at least she isn’t suffering anymore.” or “everything happens for a reason.”
These comments were toxic. Of course, I didn’t want her to suffer, but she could have recovered! And no, telling me everything happens for a reason does not heal a destroyed heart.
All I needed was empathy—permission to grieve and dive into my swirling feelings. Instead, I was given silver linings and encouraged to focus on those instead of wallowing.
Other examples of dialogue from both ourselves and others that can be toxic may sound like this:
- “Look on the bright side.”
- “Just stay positive.”
- “It’s not as bad as it seems.”
- “Just readjust your mindset.”
5 ways to deal with toxic positivity
Sometimes we don’t recognize toxic positivity until we are on the receiving end. It feels like our feelings and emotions are being undermined and invalidated. The denial of our senses can cause us to hide our authentic selves and withdraw trust from others.
Toxic positivity doesn’t just come from external sources. We often develop it ourselves to try and help us through a challenging time.
Luckily there are several ways to deal with toxic positivity.
1. Feel your emotions and feelings
I’ve spent too many years ignoring and suppressing my emotions and feelings. But they help us understand ourselves. I would argue that our emotions and feelings are part of what makes each of us unique.
There are no wrong or right emotions or feelings.
If you are going through a challenging time, tune into your emotions and feelings. I appreciate this can be difficult to do, so here are some tips which may help:
- Develop a journaling habit.
- Engage with a therapist.
- Meditate or participate in yoga.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Treat yourself to a massage.
- Switch off from social media.
2. Don’t search for the silver lining
When we constantly search for the silver lining in a negative situation, we deny the enormity of the circumstances. This denial prevents processing and healing.
A fabricated silver lining does not make the devastation better. Very often, there is no silver lining.
There was no silver lining when my beloved dog Jasper passed away.
It’s ok not to be able to “fix” someone. It can be highly uncomfortable hearing the distress of another and feeling helpless. It can take a lot of effort not to leap in and problem solve.
All we need to do is listen and acknowledge this challenging time and find it in ourselves not to try and spew out toxic positivity in the form of silver lining comments.
3. Give yourself time and space
I know it is a cliche to say that time is a healer, but it truly is. Let’s get into the habit of giving ourselves the grace of time and space during challenging times.
When my dog Jasper passed away, I took a week off work. I needed the space away from people. I was quickly overwhelmed and couldn’t handle the workplace chaos, nor did I have the headspace for work.
Time and space can look like different things.
- Take time off work as annual, compassionate, or sick leave.
- Spend time in nature.
- Spend time with yourself.
- Get lost in a book or film.
- Practice breathing techniques.
This time can help you engage with yourself. It also lets you clear your mind as best as possible, preventing internal toxic positivity.
We all know people who “battle on” with everyday life during catastrophic circumstances. This method may work for some people, but it is also a coping mechanism in the form of denial. Sometimes it may be something that we have to do. But if given a choice, always take time.
4. Recognize toxic positivity comments
When we learn to recognize toxic positivity, we can armor ourselves against it.
A friend dedicated a year of consistent training towards a goal. He showed up every day to run, lift, and stretch. He fueled and hydrated. He invested time, emotions, hopes, and dreams into a 260-mile foot race.
He pulled out of the race at mile 80.
He told himself, “at least I had a good 80 miles”. He heard other reassuring words “don’t worry, you will live to run another day.”
But his hopes and dreams lay shattered. He needed to grieve the loss of this challenge.
He didn’t need to criticize himself. But he also didn't need to hear or speak toxic positivity comments.
Accepting the disappointment for what it was was the only action required to initiate his healing and come to terms with the outcome.
Learn to recognize when comments contain toxic positivity and quickly reject them. Whether you verbally reject or quietly deny them is up to you. Just do not let them in!
5. Develop empathy
This tip is angled more to help you avoid being the purveyor of toxic positivity.
Place yourself in the other person's shoes. What can you say or do that isn’t toxic to make them feel better? Sometimes, just being there is all we can do.
Here are some examples of empathetic responses I heard when I lost my dog Jasper:
- “I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel; Please know I’m here.”
- “I know how much you loved her; I hope you are being kind to yourself.”
- “Is there anything I can do to help you honor her amazing life with you?”
- “Can you describe how you are feeling?”
All of these examples showed compassion toward my anguish. They did not deny my feelings or induce me to feel guilt or shame for my devastation.
They enabled me to heal, and despite my sense of isolation, they showed me I wasn’t alone.
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We can honor ourselves and others simply by listening and empathizing. We don’t need to reach for the toxic positivity comments in our desperate bid to fix traumas.
Do you have any tips or tricks to help tackle toxic positivity? We would love to hear about them in the comments.