Do you often find yourself saying ‘It’s not that bad, it could be worse’, or you might even catch yourself saying to a friend, “I don’t like my job but at least I have one!” These are both examples of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020). It comes in two different forms;
Toxic positivity you can receive from someone or give to someone, and
Toxic positivity you can inflict on yourself.
Essentially, toxic positivity is glossing over the ‘hard stuff’ which can impact your self-esteem and erode your confidence. It has been shown people with high levels of toxic positivity are less successful, perceived to be more selfish and naïve.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between sincere positivity and toxic positivity.
Sincere positivity combines attitudes of gratitude, optimism, and positive reappraisal. You may have even heard that positivity is good for your well-being. On the flip side, you may have even felt annoyed, angry, or uncomfortable when positivity was forced on you by others. While it may have been well intended, it may have felt disingenuous to you, or, it may have left you feeling unheard. While it’s true, positivity can be good for well-being... it can be toxic to you if you don’t acknowledge the negative emotions present or use it to suppress negative emotions.
Negative emotions have an important role to play in your wellbeing. Just like positive emotions they are a tool you use to get important needs met. And when your negative emotions are diminished or denied by toxic positivity, your strategy to get your needs met is thwarted. This in turn is likely to lead to an increase in your negative emotions with nowhere to go. So, receiving seemingly positive advice can often feel like toxic positivity to you because you have been interrupted in your attempt to meet a particular need. Remember this when you are about to give out some positivity.
In these examples, the respondent is using positivity to get rid of your true or negative experiences, invalidating the experience. If you were wanting to respond to the above comments with sincere positivity, you would look to respond by acknowledging and accepting the negative emotion and then show acceptance of it with compassion and gratitude. Essentially conveying, “Hey, it’s okay not to be okay.” This approach is not toxic because it doesn't deny the emotions and it doesn’t force us to feel something we don’t want to feel.
Our reluctance to sit with difficult emotions has some unintended wellbeing consequences when you employ techniques in inappropriate situations.
1. Controllable contexts. Studies show this strategy is only beneficial in incontrollable contexts. For example, if you were made redundant, you would find benefit in thinking about your future opportunities. But if you tried to use positive reappraisal approach in controllable situations—or situations that you can change, i.e. how you earn a living—you might actually feel worse off.
2. Threats to identity. Research suggests that it is inappropriate to use positivity (positive reappraisal) when your identity is being threatened. For example, when you experience gender oppression in the form of affirmative action, looking for silver linings appears to result in worse well-being.
3. Reflective practice. If people encourage you to use a specific emotion regulation skill that you’re not good at, it could actually leave you feeling worse off because it reminds you of something you cannot do. For many of us, positivity can be a difficult skill to develop and implement. So, if you’re not good at being positive, optimistic, or reflecting on your situation to find the silver lining, that’s okay, small steps rather than forcing yourself to a whole skill when you don’t have the foundations.
4. Too much positivity. Most people think that positive emotions are a good thing, and more is better, right? Well, it turns out that too much positive emotion may actually be a bad thing. Too much positive emotion has been shown to be a risk factor for mania.
5. Obsession with positivity. Being obsessed with happiness and focusing excessively on becoming and being happy has been shown to be bad for well-being because it can create an unrecognised discrepancy between how we want to feel and how we actually feel. Holding ultra-high expectations for happiness sets up striving to close a big gap which can be bad for our mental health.
1. Gloss over the issue
Toxic positivity can be considered an adaptive response to managing stress. However this approach keeps you stuck by allowing you to gloss over or avoid the unpleasant experiences. It is in the unpleasant experiences where we learn the most and gain clarity of what we really value. Remember the goal of unpleasant emotions is to get you into action. However, if you don’t feel the unpleasant emotion or acknowledge it, then how can you move into any action?
2. Energy vampire
Suppressing emotions takes a lot more energy than expressing them. If you are suppressing emotions and allowing them to grow, you are likely experiencing worse cognitive functioning than peers who express their emotions. Change requires energy and if you are focusing it on suppressing emotions there’ll be less available for those changes you planned. As a result of ‘holding it in’ you are also increasing the physical toll on your body. Research shows that suppressing your emotions leads to elevated activation of the stress response in your cardiovascular system.
3. Alienate yourself
By constantly communicating toxic positivity, others will feel unseen and unheard. The impact of this is that they will start to distance themselves from you because their experience of you would be that you are inauthentic and not grounded in the real world. This in turn will make it harder for you to enlist the help of others to achieve your changes.
In summary, toxic positivity can be a double-edged sword; the benefits of positivity are very real and impactful, but at the same time, it can be easy to get positivity wrong by overdoing it and not listening. The next time you encounter toxic positivity, take a moment to consider what it might be doing for that person. That way you’ll be able to have some compassion for their coping strategy and perhaps gently give them some feedback.
If you recognise toxic positivity in your self-talk, it could be a sign that your stress management strategies are working against you as they are insufficient or no longer working. Schedule a free call with me to discover how you can better manage your stress levels day to day.
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