“Don’t be so negative.” “Think happy thoughts!” “It could be worse.” You’ll get over it.” We have all heard these words of apparent support from friends, loved ones, and even ourselves when facing difficult situations in our lives. While the people in our corner have the best intentions for helping us feel better, these phrases are often unhelpful. In fact, statements like this can be quite toxic. Toxic positivity is the overgeneralization of positivity and the invalidation of negative emotions that are a natural and important part of the human experience.
As people exhibit toxic positivity, they deny and minimize emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration. They attempt to hide genuine emotions with statements such as, “It is what it is”. As we continue to dismiss these uncomfortable emotions, we feel guilty when they arise, and often shame others for expressing anything other than positivity. Guilt and shame lead us to believe these emotions are unacceptable, and that we are weak or inferior for feeling the way we do. This feeling of inferiority further complicates our situation. Not only are we going through a difficult time, we feel guilty for the unsettling emotions surrounding the situation and alienated by those close to us.
Toxic positivity is ineffective because it does the exact opposite of what we need: support and validation of our feelings. The truth is life is difficult and we all face hardships from time to time. What we need is to accept our own uncomfortable emotions and validate those feelings in others. All emotions have a purpose. Anger felt when coming out of depression is us remembering our self-worth. Anger can be protective and used to neutralize threats to our ego, or how we want to think of ourselves and how we want others to think of us. When expressed appropriately, anger can be the emotion that initiates change. Sadness is a signal that we need help or comforting. It is an indicator that we need to give ourselves time to heal and recover from a loss or seek comfort from those close to us. Feeling anger and sadness does not make us weak or inferior. It makes us human.
So how do we break this cycle of toxic positivity? The answer lies in empathy and support. When we express empathy, we recognize and validate feelings, even uncomfortable feelings. Showing empathy and support to loved ones when they are experiencing difficult times allows them to feel validation of their uncomfortable emotions, eliminating guilt and shame. It provides them with security and acceptance needed to express the emotion and maneuver through the hardship while feeling supported in the process. In order to be a supportive family member, friend, or colleague, readjust your mindset from toxic positivity to one of genuine concern and empathy. “It’s ok to not be ok.” “I can see how that would make you feel angry.” “I am here for you.” “It’s okay to cry.” “It’s natural to feel that way.” “I love you through all your emotional states.” “I’m here to listen if you want to talk.” Showing empathy for a loved one during a difficult time allows them the freedom to express emotions without the threat of feeling judgement.Tags: accepting uncomfortable emotions, emotions, emotions have purpose, toxic people, toxic positivity