“Positive thinking is a coping mechanism, an automatic coping mechanism. It is void of life. Feeling and experiencing the realness of what is actually happening are the essences of being alive.”C. JoyBell C.
I’ve been thinking a lot about toxic positivity. I recently saw an incredibly offensive meme, disguised as inspirational, and the gist was, “All things in life are hard. Choose your hard.” I was taken aback at the blatant black and white thinking of the meme and was happy to see a comments section full of people calling it what it was…a steaming hot dumpster of toxic positivity. It got me thinking about the times in my life that I have experienced toxic positivity and the real damage that it does.
Toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how terrible or hard a situation is, you should avoid any and all negative emotions and stay positive and upbeat. Check it out…I am no Debbie Downer. I believe in trying to stay positive whenever you can and trying to look on the bright side when things aren’t going your way. That said, there is a difference between trying to have a generally positive outlook and denying the normal range of human emotions because you believe you must remain positive at all times.
Toxic positivity minimizes and invalidates the human experience. Everyone feels bad sometimes. We all get sad and angry and bored. There is nothing you can do to stop it and trying to avoid the emotions will only make you sick. When people have the belief that positive is the only way to achieve a “good life,” it harms the people around them.
- It shames people who are feeling bad. By approaching the situation with toxic positivity, you are telling them that what they are feeling is wrong or bad. No feelings are wrong or bad, only normal.
- It can cause extreme guilt. Sometimes you can’t feel positive, hopeful, or even grateful. I can attest to this guilt. Being reminded of how much I have to be grateful for during depressive episodes only made me feel more guilty and sadder because I couldn’t be happy. My brain wouldn’t let me in those moments. I knew I had so much to be grateful for, so the sadness and pain made me feel selfish and ungrateful.
- It avoids and suppresses authentic emotion. You should allow yourself to feel a normal range of emotions. You can’t be emotionally and mentally healthy otherwise.
- It prevents you from learning and growing. My greatest life lessons were born of the most emotionally painful moments of my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be the strong and resilient person that I am and wouldn’t have been able to build a solid foundation out of the rubble that had become my life. We need difficult situations so that we can learn from negative experiences.
- It isn’t authentic. Toxic positivity is super fake and forced. It doesn’t allow you to be your true self.
- Denying negative emotions can result in increased depression and anxiety.
Some signs of toxic positivity are:
- hiding your true feelings
- stuffing down or dismissing your feelings
- feeling guilty for experiencing negative emotions
- using trite quotes and perspective to minimize other’s experiences
- shaming people for showing negative emotions or thoughts
- brushing off bothersome feelings and scenarios
Toxic positivity is all around us, especially in this day and age of social media; where everyone seems to only post their shining moments. I’m as much a sucker for a cute, “Good vibes only,” sticker as the next gal. But you apply it to a notebook, not make it your life motto. Even if you put out all the good vibes in the world, you’re not always in control of the vibes that you encounter in day-to-day life and that’s okay.
Examples of Toxic Positivity
There are so many examples of toxic positivity that it would take me all day to write them all out. I want to give you a few poignant examples here.
Everything happens for a reason. Listen. I have suffered through 2 miscarriages. Maybe everything does happen for a reason. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, saying this to someone who is going through a loss or a tough situation is not helpful, but in fact, minimizes those very real feelings that they are having. “This was your body’s way of telling you there was something wrong,” is not a comforting thing to say to someone who has just lost a child. That was a human. “They’re in a better place,” and, “be grateful they’re no longer in pain,” are also examples of this type of toxic positivity.
You have so much to be grateful for. This one is a real kicker. Let me explain something to you. When a person is depressed, it is not because we aren’t grateful for the life we have and the people in it. By telling us to be grateful in our worst moments, you heap unbelievable amounts of shame and guilt onto us. We aren’t able to feel better, but we know we should be happy. It makes us feel like something is wrong with us and it makes us feel ashamed of something that we can’t always control.
Choose your hard. This is the one that prompted me to write this post. I can’t remember exactly what the meme said, but it was offensive. It did not consider the nuances of life; ignoring the factors that make things even harder. It doesn’t always boil down to choice. Sometimes, you have no choice. Sometimes, the only choices you have are a rock and a hard place. “Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard.” Not taking into account that some marriages are poison. “Being fat is hard. Being skinny is hard. Choose your hard.” As though it were as simple as choosing to be skinny. Once again, this type of black and white toxic positivity causes shame and guilt for people that don’t have good choices, to begin with.
Don’t dwell on it. This one gets me every time. Don’t dwell on it. I have OCD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. I have C-PTSD which causes emotional flashbacks. When my illnesses are in full form, all I do is dwell on it. All of it. Obsessively. Telling me not to dwell on it is not only dismissive of my fight, but is also completely unhelpful. Listen, if I want to talk. Be there for me while I cry. Hug me. Tell me you love me. Don’t dismiss me by telling me not to dwell on my brain.
Happiness is a choice. I saved my least favorite for last. This statement is so harmful and so false. Anyone who has ever experienced depression in any form can tell you that happiness is not always a choice. Sometimes it just seems like a facade, far off in the distance and sometimes you can’t see it at all. Once again, we have guilt and shame. You’re telling a person who doesn’t have the current capacity to feel happiness that it is their choice to feel the way that they feel? No. Come on with that mess.
Preventing Toxic Positivity
So, how do we nip toxic positivity in the bud? First and foremost, don’t ignore or stuff your feelings. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel, positive or negative. Deal with your negative emotions in a healthy way. Talk about them when you need to and don’t let anyone tell you that what you are feeling is wrong or bad. Humans feel a full range of emotions and no one is exempt from any of them.
This goes both ways. When the people in your orbit are going through a tough or traumatic time, listen to them and validate how they feel. Don’t try to rationalize their emotions and definitely don’t try to help them put things into perspective; you will likely end up making them feel worse. Pain and negative emotions are always rational and you can’t out-positive them. They are what they are. Also, and this is really important, do not offer advice unless you are asked for it and do not punish a person for not taking your advice in their time of need.
Always try to remember that it’s okay to not be okay. Also, you can feel positive and negative emotions at the same time and they do not cancel each other out. It’s entirely possible to have complicated, bad, or negative emotions over certain situations and still live a happy, fulfilling life. It is possible to have a negative outlook about certain areas of your life while still feeling satisfied in other areas.
Be realistic about your emotions and don’t compare yourself to others. Social media can be a trap in this aspect. People tend to post their happiest and brightest moments on social media. For every amazing selfie that they post, you don’t see the 25 others that they took that weren’t good enough. Ignore that “happiness is a choice,” and “choose your hard,” memes and remember that you are an individual with your own unique set of circumstances and emotions.
Lastly, be authentic. Toxic positivity can’t harm you if you just be yourself and allow yourself to feel what you feel, regardless of how anyone else feels about it. Be accepting and kind to yourself in your time of need and lean on the people who know and love you.
You can be positive in life without employing toxic positivity.
That’s all I have for today. Be sure to subscribe via email so that you never miss an update. You can also follow me on Twitter and join our private Facebook group, The Winter Of My Discontent: ADHD and Mental Illness Community.