The Dangers of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity, the two words are polar opposites so what are they doing together and why have you been hearing this turn of phrase lately? In our culture there has been a movement of people who overindulge on the idea of portraying themselves as happy and positive all the time. Happiness and positivity are emotions that come and go, same as others such as negativity and anger. You could argue that it is a sociopathic way of thinking to tell yourself and others to only feel one range of emotions. Feeling a broad spectrum of emotions is a part of the human experience and not something we are better off denying.
Suppressing something you are feeling or telling yourself you “should not” be feeling a certain way is a form of invalidation. We do not need to fix our natural emotions, nor do we need shame ourselves and others for not being happy all the time. Especially in this, the year 2020 when our lives have been flipped upside down. We are struggling on a collective global level to stay positive and those who don’t are seen as weak. According to clinical social worker Heather Monroe, toxic positivity “oversimplifies the human brain and how we process emotions, and it can actually be detrimental to our mental health”.
This is exceptionally true when it comes to our self-esteem. Too often we speak down to ourselves for eating something deemed as “bad” or overeating or not working out like we planned to. We are our own worst critics and that by no means falls short when it comes to judging our body and how well we are, or are not, taking care of it. When we lack confidence the first person we look to blame is ourselves. After all, aren’t we responsible for our own happiness? If we don’t feel good about something, it’s our own fault, right? We need to “do better” in the future. By telling ourselves it’s our own fault or decision to not be happy, we only increase our negative emotions.
Instead of allowing ourselves to feel sad, hurt or angry we tend to tell ourselves and others to stop being negative; to suck it up and move up and just be happy and appreciate what we have. That’s one of the biggest traps of toxic positivity: gratitude guilt. While practicing gratitude can be one of the most mentally beneficial things we can do, it’s important not to use it as a weapon against ourselves in tough times. An example of toxic positivity with gratitude is when someone (perhaps our own mind) tells us “it could be worse,” or “think of all you have to be grateful for”.
BoJack Horseman, a show that is prime on depression and mental health stigma once had a character say to another, “don’t feel bad about feeling bad”. Still, it can be easier said than done. Especially when we’re scrolling Instagram and see people smiling in perfectly posed photos that portray dream-like lives with positive affirmations listed as their caption. We might have slept in, skipped a workout, not showered, not eaten, feel blue and wonder, what’s wrong with us? According to Harvard psychiatrist Michael Bennett, MD in his self help book F*ck Feelings, “don’t stigmatize negative feelings; even pacifists, yogis and nursery school teachers get road rage under the wrong circumstances...if you chastise yourself for having nasty feelings when you really can’t help it, you usually make them worse”.
Therein lies the dangers of toxic positivity. Denying what we naturally feel will only suppress and amplify those initial emotions. Have you ever expressed an upset feeling to someone you’re close to only for them to tell you to stop feeling, in one form or the word or another, pessimistic? It’s like telling a person with anxiety to calm down, or telling someone with depression to cheer up. While the intention may be good, it shows a lack of compassion and understanding to the person experiencing a difficult emotion and often makes them feel worse for having shared their vulnerability.
It takes confidence to be able to self-validate and accept ourselves for feeling however we do. The key is to acknowledge our emotions and accept them without letting them control us. Not allowing ourselves or others to feel anything other than happiness and positivity is hurtful. In order to process our emotions in a healthy way we need to accept them, vocalize them and work through them. If there are people in your life who do not judge you for feeling how you do, hold onto them and work through things with them whenever possible.
Much like restricting ourselves too severely when on a diet for the believed cause of it being “good” for us, denying how we feel has the same effects. It leads to a vicious spiral of hopelessness.
Toxic positivity has bled into our self confidence and oftentimes body image. On the opposite end the term body positivity is doing what it intends: having anyone and everyone feel good about how they look. It aims to demystify the media’s agenda of needing to be model-thin to be attractive. Body positivity is about embracing our flaws as attributes. Once we treat our minds the same way, we will be on a healthier path to self-acceptance and self-love.