Being positive is a good thing, until it becomes obsessive and you don’t allow yourself to feel ‘bad’ things. In this article, certified autism coach Nikki talks about toxic positivity and why you should avoid it at all costs.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Positivity: it’s something we all could use in our lives, especially now that we’re facing a collective historical moment in time. People are forced to change their routines thanks to this pandemic and it’s difficult to see any perspective. Hence, we desperately need positivity!

However, positivity can also drastically turn for the worse when you’re not careful. And when that happens, it’s not helpful at all. Instead, it becomes toxic. In this blog you will learn what toxic positivity is and why it isn’t helpful for your overall well-being.

What Is Positivity?

Positivity is a commonly used term. You can type it into your Google search bar and find loads and loads of information about positivity. But what exactly is positivity? I’ll explain! 

In the literal term it means “affirming” or “agreeing”. When something is positive, it means that you agree with it as it is. Literally, positivity means consenting and having no problems with what actually is there.

However, the society we live in changed the meaning of the word somewhat. Our society has adapted the idea, that positivity means you should always focus on the beautiful aspects of life. You should be a “the glass is half full”-kind of person and stay away from negativity. You should always have a great attitude towards life and not complain about things that don’t go the way you’d like them to go.

Don’t get me wrong: it helps to look at life situations with a positive view. When you have a positive outlook on life, it might actually benefit you in multiple ways.

If you experience positive feelings, it sets the tone for becoming more creative. You are able to express your creativity and also think in a different way. Positive emotions can also make you become more flexible. You might react to things in a way you wouldn’t do if you had a negative view, which may open new doors for you. It also makes you more resilient when things become more difficult. 

Additionally, positivity reduces feelings of stress, which is also beneficial for your health. If you experience stress, it increases your blood pressure, tenses your muscles and it shoots out stress hormones like adrenaline and even cortisol (when you’re under stress for a longer period of time). I think you can imagine what that does to your health.

The ‘Good Vibes Only’ Culture

If you read all of this, you’d think that positivity is the way to go! And yes, it’s great to have a positive outlook on life. In my opinion however, our society’s view on positivity has taken a shift in the negative direction. Nowadays it’s expected of you to be that “glass half full”-kind of person. For example, when you go to social media, you’ll see a lot of hashtags like #GoodVibesOnly.

Nevertheless, hashtags and phrases like that leave no room for the wider range of emotions we as human beings are capable of feeling. There is a whole spectrum of emotions that are less positive, but they do exist. The #GoodVibesOnly-culture can quickly shift towards toxic positivity because of that. As I said, I’m all for being optimistic and I’ll always try to see the good in any situation, but sometimes it just won’t work. Sometimes you can’t see the positive side of something. Sometimes, you should feel the negative emotions instead of neglecting them. And society now tells us that those feelings are not welcome. 

What Is Toxic Positivity?

According to Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, toxic positivity is defined as “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or positive vibes”. This can be harmful, especially when you tend to feel these, more negative emotions, often. Or when you feel them deeply, as a lot of highly sensitive people and empaths do. You might get the idea that these feelings are bad and that therefore, it is a mistake to feel them. And this is where it gets toxic.

Our society tells us to “stay positive” when you get sick. Did you lose your job? Stay positive! Got divorced? People will tell you that there are other fish in the sea, there is no need for that depressing attitude. Phrases like these aren’t helping anyone. They are actually really bad and harmful for your mental health. 

Toxic positivity is a silencing tactic. It’s a kind of positivity that makes people ashamed for their negative feelings. It guilts people into stuffing their emotions away and it makes people build a wall around them, so they don’t have to feel bad for not showing #GoodVibesOnly. But if you do not work through your emotions, they will surface sooner or later. However, these emotions might surface in a different way. For instance, they might express themselves through anxiety, depression or even PTSD.

On the image there is a woman who looks worried, like she is holding in her emotions. She is caucasian and has shoulderlong hair.

Internalized Toxic Positivity

Unfortunately, this kind of positivity is entwined in our society now. You can see it everywhere, on social media, tv or just in daily life. When you take a look on Instagram, for instance, you’ll see all the influencers living their best life. If something bad happens, you see people shoveling it away. They’ll say things like “somebody else might have it worse than I do, I’ll just stay positive!”. Or they’ll say that everything happens for a reason, or to just look on the bright side of life. Things will work out just fine in the end. 

Hearing or reading this on a daily basis will cause you to start believing it. And of course, a lot of things will work out just fine over time. And not every problem you encounter will be huge and can be easily resolved. But when your mind starts to believe toxic positivity and hears it repeatedly, it can turn into internalized toxic positivity. And when that happens, you might start to think that you’re not worthy of help and support. That you’ll just have to deal with it, because you’re not allowed to feel bad about it. 

Having thoughts like that can cause you to feel afraid to share your grief. You may be scared to talk to your friends about it, because they might think you’re being a Debby Downer. Moreover, you might only share the good things in life on your social media accounts. Additionally, you could start wearing a mask, so others won’t see that you’re actually hurting on the inside. 

Relearning Emotions

What we need to learn as a society, is that it’s okay to embrace the full spectrum of emotions. You can have an overall positive outlook on the world, but still feel rage, frustration, fear or sadness. Gratitude can exist alongside anxiety. Hope can exist alongside the feeling of loss. And we don’t have to feel happy and strong all the time. It’s okay to not smile for a while. Also, it’s okay to cry and perfectly okay to experience a whirlwind of feelings and acting on them. We do not need to put it away somewhere, so nobody will see them. Remember that it is a human thing to have a response to them. You do not have to hide them.

Allow yourself to feel. If you’ve had to deal with (internalized) toxic positivity it might feel strange for a while. That’s normal! You have to recalibrate your brain and that will probably take some time. But you can train your brain and give it some help to achieve some knowledge about your feelings. Whenever you notice that you dislike a situation or when you feel yourself suppressing your emotions, try to stay in that moment. Try to actually feel what it is that you are feeling. Then try to release it. You could yell or scream, cry or dance it out. But you could also journal or meditate about it, for instance.

What Is Genuine Optimism?

You can practice changing toxic positivity into genuine optimism. I have some examples for you, to help you shift your thought pattern. Here are some ways to rephrase your thoughts and support towards others:

  • “Being negative won’t help you” > “It’s important to let it out”
  • “Good vibes only” > “I love you through all your emotional states”
  • “You’ll get over it” > “You are resilient and even if it takes a while, you will get through it”
  • “Other people are struggling more” > “You are not alone and I will support you”
  • “Crying won’t help” > “It’s okay to cry, we all do it”
  • “Just stay positive” > “Things are tough right now, can I do anything for you?”

You can use these examples on yourself, when you notice you’re in a bad place and feel shame or guilt about it. However, you can also use these if you see a friend, family member or colleague struggling. With these little shifts in your thought pattern you’ll stop forcing people to feel positive about things, and you’ll acknowledge their actual feelings. This will help them to go through them instead of hiding them away deep down in their soul. 

Allow Yourself To Feel What You Need To Feel

I know that a lot of highly sensitive people have dozens and dozens of empathy to give and will probably know what it’s like to feel all the feels. But you might not actually see it return to you. You might be the recipient of toxic positivity. People might have said to you to stop being so sensitive and “just get over it already”.

I hope this post will make you feel a little bit more validated. It’s really not you, it’s them. It’s society. And you do not have to get over it. You’re allowed to feel. Take your time to work through it. To feel sad. To cry. Using positivity to bypass emotions does not heal you. Accepting and expressing them will. Because if you’ll let it out, you will have more room for genuine optimism.

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