From the annals of life’s great ironies, in these days of COVID-19 being “negative” is a good thing. And the announcement, “I’m positive,” sends people fleeing.
However, there’s a lesson wrapped up in there too. Almost two years into a devastating pandemic with mental health issues spiking, it’s not so simple — or helpful — to force yourself or others to look on the bright side. Directives like, “cheer up” or “stop focusing on the negatives,” tend to have the opposite effect.
Now, this is not to say that all positive psychology is malarkey. Science shows that affirmations can help boost resilience and rational optimism is an effective way to take action in the face of adversity.
There’s a fine line, though, between garden-variety and toxic positivity. Understanding the differences is critical for sowing the seeds of greater well-being.
What is Toxic Positivity?
The general theme of toxic positivity is that someone is using positivity to cover up our true or negative experiences. It’s not that these toxic responses are bad advice, exactly. It’s just that they’re delivered in the wrong way at the wrong time.
So, for example, if you’re having a hard time at work, someone saying to you, “Be grateful you even have a job,” isn’t helpful. Similarly, if you’re suddenly out of work, the feedback, “It’s a blessing in disguise, you’ll find something better,” is equally annoying.
When positivity tips from being merely unhelpful to actually harmful, the real issues with toxic positivity surface, including:
- Emotional conversations — the kind that might prompt someone to get necessary professional help — are immediately shut down.
- Emotions are separated into good and bad, contributing to the stigma around mental health.
- Thinking you should be happy all the time is unrealistic and unhealthy.
All of this can lead to more suffering. Instead, root into reality and seek more productive — and realistic — ways to alleviate anguish.
Don’t Worry, Be Crappy
Because suppressing negative emotions is one of the key ways positivity becomes toxic, mindfulness can help you cultivate awareness and acceptance of negative emotions. Also, just because an emotion is negative doesn’t mean it’s bad. For example, research shows that embarrassment motivates forgiveness, and sadness can inspire others to help us.
Keep in mind this doesn’t mean accepting terrible situations — it just helps normalize your feelings and allows you to stop judging yourself for not constantly being happy.
Additionally, having empathy and compassion provides a sense of being seen, heard, and understood. And ultimately, that’s the most positive thing any of us can do for each other — and ourselves.
Toxic Positivity: Definition, Research & Examples (Berkeley Well-Being Institute)