Toxic positivity is a trend that’s sneaking up on many who are overly invested in the self-help culture.
It’s the tendency to brush off our struggles and “just focus on the positive.” You may experience it as pressure to feel grateful and happy.
Alternatively, you’re tempted to tell others that they “shouldn’t worry” or that “everything happens for a reason” when their life is falling apart.
Toxic positivity drives us away from addressing the source of our struggles. It usually comes from a good intention. By “being positive” we just try to keep ourselves and others happy.
But ultimately, this doesn’t serve anyone. Especially not in the current circumstances of a global pandemic.
Advice like “eliminate negativity from your life” or “always look for the silver lining” may sound good. They bring a hint of immediate comfort. But at the core, they’re meaningless. What do they offer us, beyond the pressure to fake yet another smile? How are they helping us deal with heavy emotions, other than through suppressing them?
Here’s the thing about dealing with problems — regardless of whether they’re personal or global: We have to call them by their names if we want to solve them.
As Greta Thunberg said in her famous speech at COP24:
“We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
Forcing yourself to be happy when you aren’t won’t solve anything. In fact, it can be downright harmful.
Here are 3 ways in which toxic positivity makes your life harder, not easier.
1. Toxic Positivity Creates Unnecessary Suffering
“The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.” — Mark Manson
Toxic positivity means denial of certain experiences — especially, some emotional states. We easily label anger, jealousy or resent as “negative emotions.” And you don’t want any negativity in your life, right?
So, you pretend that you don’t feel these things. At first, you only do it occasionally. Then, you incorporate that enthusiastic, negativity-free persona into your routine way of being.
You may also encourage people around you to let go of negativity. “Look for the brights side,” “it could be worse,” and “be grateful for what you have” are just a few examples of what you may say. The intention behind it is noble. But what those phrases really do is deny you and others the right to feel hurt, angry or sad.
This attitude may appear to work short-term. But over time, toxic positivity takes its toll on you. By constantly pretending that you feel great, you erase a big portion of your human experience.
Instead of integrating, you disintegrate your identity. In extreme situations, this can lead to dissociation. You push those “negative” parts of yourself deep into your unconscious. If you ignore them for long enough, they may start living a life of their own.
You can’t feel whole because you stubbornly deny your imperfections, failures or mistakes. But this only leads to resistance and more suffering. Carl Jung famously said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” And he was right — a sense of wholeness is more important to our wellbeing than perfection.
Especially in the pandemic, when your mental health is already fragile, it’s important to admit how you really feel. Admitting that life just plain sucks right now may be healthier than trying to get through it all smiling.
Why? Because denying your feelings usually comes at a huge cost.
- It’s a serious energy expense. Think back to the last time you forced yourself to stop crying or swallow your anger. Do you remember how tiring that was?
- When you don’t express your feelings, they accumulate in your body. One study observed that emotional suppression caused “increased sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system” in participants watching a movie. In other words, those who made an effort to appear calmer on the outside were much more stressed on the inside!
- Suppressed emotions don’t disappear — they chase you along your life path. Brianna Wiest once wrote that “our emotional experiences, if we don’t finish them, stay with us.” And it’s true. If you deny your feelings, they bottle up and turn you into a ticking bomb. Then, you may explode when you least expect it.
No matter how difficult your experience, if you push it away, you usually just make it harder. Suffering is born from resisting what happens to us.
So don’t resist your grief, anger or fear. Giving yourself permission to feel what you feel will bring more relief than faking a smile.
2. Toxic Positivity Disrupts Your Relationship With Yourself
“Better wellbeing should not focus only on being happy, because it denies resilience-building experiences.” — Noel McDermott
There’s only one person you need to spend the rest of your life with — you. No matter how much you try, there’s no escaping this truth.
Knowing that — why not do everything in your power to treat the person in the mirror as your best friend?
This isn’t possible if toxic positivity is driving your life. When you reduce your self-image to someone who should always be happy, you stop seeing yourself for who you really are. Your relationship with yourself becomes shallow and inauthentic.
Your self-love is conditional — and depends on whether or not you measure up to arbitrary standards.
One example of how this happens is on social media — particularly the visual-driven platforms like Instagram, Pinterest or Snapchat. They encourage a disconnect between who we are on the inside and what we show on the outside.
By curating your life into a collection of images for display, you send a message to yourself: This is who I should be and how I should look to feel worthy.
Taken to the extreme, it may result in “Snapchat dysmorphia” — a term coined by cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho to describe a variation of body dysmorphic disorder. It usually happens among younger social media users who sign up for plastic surgery to look like they do in the selfie filter.
These people no longer accept themselves for who they are. Instead, they aspire to the look that grants them all the online likes and hearts.
As doctor Esho says:
“We now see photos of ourselves daily via the social platforms we use, which arguably makes us more critical of ourselves. Patients using pictures of celebrities or Snapchat-filtered versions of themselves as reference points is okay. The danger is when this is not just a reference point, but it becomes how the patient sees themselves, or the patient wants to look exactly like that image.”
This is an example of how toxic positivity may disrupt your relationship with yourself. It becomes a sort of self-censorship. It lowers your capacity for self-acceptance by leading you to believe that it’s only okay to feel, behave and look in one way: happy and “positive.”
When you don’t measure up, you start believing you need to fix yourself. This way, self-love — i.e. the ability to be your own best friend through the good and the bad — becomes unattainable.
3. Toxic Positivity Undermines Your Relationships
Being falsely positive harms not just your yourself. It also undermines your most important relationships.
At first, this may seem counterintuitive. You would think that your friends and co-workers will appreciate a person who’s always smiling. You may be holding yourself back from telling them about your problems. This way, you think you display your “best self” to them.
However, such an approach can easily backfire.
It may sound strange at first, but bear with me: Your relationships benefit when you’re transparent about your struggles.
Why? First of all, people can feel it when you’re dishonest. Fake positivity doesn’t hide your real state. Even if your friend or partner doesn’t notice it consciously, on some level they will sense that something’s off in the way you interact with them.
Maybe your body language isn’t coherent with the “positive” talk pouring out of your mouth. Maybe it’s the tone of your voice. Or, a grimace here and there which gives away that, deep down, you’re not happy at all.
It’s obvious that dishonesty doesn’t support your relationships. But there’s also another reason toxic positivity hinders your connection with others.
By avoiding to mention your struggles, you close off one proven way in which people build bonds. That way is self-disclosure. There are numerous studies showing that disclosing vulnerable, personal information is key to fostering trust and feelings of closeness.
But you don’t even need science to understand that. Simply imagine being in a company of someone who never speaks about their weaknesses, bad days, or failures. They always keep a happy face and talk about how amazing their life is. They also tell others to “just be positive” and “always look for the bright side.”
Now think about this question: How comfortable would you be open up in front of that person? My guess is, not very.
The way we relate to others is by identifying similarities in our experience. When you go through a difficult time, it brings relief to hear that someone has struggled with that, too.
On the contrary, people who appear flawless usually don’t seem like they could understand you.
That’s why toxic positivity is detrimental to relationships. Of course, this doesn’t mean that, from now on, you should only talk about your problems. This isn’t healthy, either.
But remember that disclosing your vulnerability makes you more relatable. And that’s exactly how relationships form: through relating and understanding each other.
If Not Toxic Positivity, Then What?
Pretending to feel great and positive when you don’t doesn’t benefit anyone.
On the surface, it may appear to bring “love and light” into the world. But if that love and light aren’t authentic, they do more harm then good.
Toxic positivity creates more, not less suffering. It disrupts your relationship with yourself. It also disconnects you from others.
You may be wondering, so what’s the cure to toxic positivity? So much of our world is organized around trying to feel good. If we don’t, this makes us feel like failures. We worry that we’re losing at the game of life, wasting our time on feeling miserable.
But the alternative to chasing positivity is dead-simple. It’s also available to everyone. Unfortunately, no one teaches it at school and we often forget about it.
The alternative to toxic positivity is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the capacity to be at peace with your feelings regardless of what they are.
It’s the inner capacity of relating to yourself with acceptance.
It’s ceasing to chase tomorrow’s happiness, in favor of enjoying this very moment.
If you want to tap into it — experiment. Check how it would feel to not be positive and to admit your struggles instead. Maybe you can say to yourself: “Yeah, there are parts of my life that suck right now. But that doesn’t mean that all of it sucks.”
It can feel good to be alive no matter how many problems you have. You don’t need to cover them up with toxic positivity. Not during the pandemic, not at any other time.
Instead, you can repeat after Carl Jung and say:
“I’d rather be whole than good.”
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