Don’t worry, be happy!
Smile! It could be worse!
Everything’s going to be OK!
These seemingly positive messages have plagued the collective mentality lately. We can’t open social media without seeing at least one pastel photo with one of those sentences printed in curly fonts on them. Such harmless statements promote toxic positivity, which damages one’s mental health.
But what’s toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the tendency to suppress one’s true feelings or encouraging others to do so and replace them with blind optimism no matter the situation. In short, it’s a ‘Positive vibes only!’ mindset that alienates people from reality.
Does it mean that we should give up hope? NO WAY. Hope, positive thinking, and toxic positivity are different matters.
Positive Thinking versus Toxic Positivity
Positive thinking means cultivating an optimistic attitude and believing in one’s abilities to surpass obstacles. Despite its name, positivity includes cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components. Having a positive outlook on life benefits one’s mental health. Positive thinking can shut down intrusive thoughts, diminish anxiety and stress symptoms, and help individuals pursue new paths in life (source).
For example, when a person starts working in a new field, they might feel nervous about it, up to the point they feel like giving up. They can tame the fear of the unknown with positive thinking. Instead of worrying about their performance, they could reframe the situation positively, such as This is a new learning opportunity for me, so I will try to make the best out of it. The outcome won’t define my worth as a person.
Toxic positivity can manifest in a similar situation: let’s say Jay has lost his long-time job, can’t pay for his dream car anymore, so he tells his friends about it. And they reply with: ‘At least, you are healthy. A lot of people have it worse than you right now. You should focus on the good things in your life!’
That’s not helpful at all. I’m sure many of us have heard these words from people who wanted to encourage us but managed to do the opposite. Jay’s job meant a lot to him, so he needed to grieve its loss, not to be told to suck it up. Sure, he will have to find a new occupation, but his emotional needs come first. If he takes the path of toxic positivity and forces himself to bury his feelings, he won’t be able to process them and move on.
How to deal with Toxic Positivity?
Now that we clarified what this phenomenon means, it’s time to find out how you can keep it away from your life.
1. Allow yourself to feel all the feels.
Your emotions are the internal feedback to the world you live in. There aren’t good or bad – joy, fear, and rage are equally important. They help you figure out if you are in harmony with your surroundings or not. We need to normalize having and displaying our emotions because suppressing your feelings negatively affects your mental health. Instead of going away, they will eventually come to the surface when you least expect it.
So, in case society brainwashed you into thinking that you should radiate positive vibes, repeat after me: it’s normal to have a big range of emotions. Rejoice when you receive good news. Cry if you feel hurt. Speak up when somebody has done you wrong. Allow sadness in your life because it will teach you many things about yourself.
2. Search for practical solutions to your problems
‘Staying positive’ won’t solve anything. This step depends on the issue you are facing. Sometimes, a good cry takes the pressure off, and you can get back to work after that. Other times, you have to ask yourself, ‘What do I need to change? What can I do right now to improve my mental health/social, or economic status?’ Make a step-by-step plan, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
3. Ask others to respect your feelings
Your loved ones often want to deflect your attention from your pain by changing the subject or offering unwanted advice. Despite their good intentions, it might not be what you need. You can start the conversation by saying something like, ‘I need to vent for a second. Would you please listen and offer me sympathy? I’d appreciate that.’
It might seem uncomfortable, but expressing your needs means that you know what’s best for your mental health. Being straightforward saves a lot of time and frustration on both sides, so give it a try!
4. Validate other people’s feelings
As the old saying goes, be the change you wish to see in the world!
Remove phrases like ‘You’ll be fine!’, ‘Look at the bright side!’, ‘It could be worse.’ from your vocabulary. Those are classic toxic positivity examples.
When others open up to you, make sure to validate their experiences and show genuine interest in their problem. Try to say, ‘I understand that you are in distress right now. I am here to listen.’ or ‘Don’t be ashamed of feeling this way, you are safe here.’ instead.
The bottom line is that toxic positivity is harmful to your mental health. Once you acknowledge it and learn to spot it, you can replace it with genuine empathy towards yourself and others and search for practical solutions for your problems.