Originally published on July 12, 2021
Getting Familiar with Toxic Positivity
There’s a relatively new term floating around self-help circles these days called toxic positivity. In a nutshell, it’s the belief that we should always remain wildly optimistic no matter how dire our circumstances.
I’m sure you’ve seen or heard this mindset in action before. It’s the same sentiment behind social media posts stating, “I just got fired from my dream job, but everything’s still AMAZING! Nothing but rainbows and unicorns for me! I’m loving life!” Of course, I’m being a bit over the top on purpose here, but still, I think you see my point.
Now, before we go too far, I have to state the obvious: There’s nothing wrong with being positive, especially in the face of struggle and disappointment. In fact, hope and optimism are often two of the only things that keep us going despite our worldly difficulties. If we didn’t believe we could overcome obstacles and challenges, few of us would ever persist in the face of them — never mind even get out of bed each morning.
Having said that, however, there are still a few problems with being unreasonably optimistic, and they’re not only related to one another — they’re also what we’ll cover in this post.
Problem 1: Toxic Positivity Can Lead to Repression
Let’s say you’re the person behind our hypothetical social media post above. Now, call me crazy, but if you just got fired from your dream job, wouldn’t you be — I don’t know — a bit sad or disappointed? I’m sure I would.
Though there are a few reasons someone might react in an out-of-touch fashion commensurate with the above example, the main one is that he or she doesn’t want to have to deal with the negative emotions associated with the situation at hand. Why? Because doing so is painful and can lead to all sorts of additional questions and problems in our lives. Best to just skate on by, we sometimes think.
But, as much as that mindset might help us in the moment, in the long run, it only gets us in further trouble. Here’s why. The disappointment we feel when we get fired from jobs we love indicates we’ve lost something we care about. When we approach that disappointment with a level head, we realize it’s trying to point us back toward a similar, desirable situation in the near future.
However, when we ignore that pain and disappointment, we subtly (or not so subtly) tell ourselves that any situation we’re in is a great one — even when it’s not. Though the intentions of such an approach are undoubtedly good, they’re not exactly honest. And while this dishonest outlook may help us feel good in the short term, it can dampen our desire to find authentic sources of joy and lead us to even more negative emotions down the road when we realize we’re not where we want to be in life.
In reality, when we practice toxic positivity, ignore undesirable emotions, and think in such fashions, we engage in something that looks a lot like repression. There’s a reason that word often has a negative connotation associated with it. When we bury unwanted, challenging experiences and feelings, we allow them to stick around and grow. Eventually, those oversized emotions spill out of their original containers and wreak much more havoc in our lives than they would’ve if we’d just dealt with them in the first place.
Problem 2: Telling Ourselves It’s Not Okay to Experience Struggle Only Sets Us Up for More of It
Another thing that underscores toxic positivity is the subtle notion that it’s not okay to struggle or experience hardship. Again, if we’ve just been let go from beloved employment opportunities, we should be disappointed to some degree. That’s not to say we should necessarily be devastated, overwhelmed, or guilt-stricken — just that we should have a healthy dose of understanding that what happened to us was not something we desired.
However, when we subscribe to the belief that we should be relentlessly positive no matter what occurs in our lives, we create a rift between our internal and external worlds and ignore what’s actually happened to us. That not only leads to the repression we discussed a moment ago, but it also sets us up for more pain down the road. Here’s what I mean by that.
As much as we hate to admit it, everyone struggles to a degree in some area of their lives. It could be self-image, career, relationships, finances — you name it — but we all have our weak spots, and those vulnerable points lead to pain.
When we employ a mindset of toxic positivity, we ignore this unsettling fact and allow our inevitable future struggles to throw us off course in an even more destructive fashion than needed. To help make more sense of this idea and what I’m hinting at here, let’s look at an example.
Let’s say I struggle with panic attacks and just had another difficult one recently. Since I subscribe to toxic positivity, after this most recent attack, I was able to push it aside, forget about the pain associated with it, and temporarily keep moving. Now, of course, that does something beneficial for me — it helps me live right now. That’s a good thing.
However, the not-so-good thing about this approach is that if I haven’t actually learned to manage these attacks, I’m more than likely due for another one soon. And when that subsequent attack hits, it’s really going to mess with me. Why?
Because if I tell myself that my attacks and their associated pain don’t exist or will never return, then when I experience both of those things once again, I’m in for a showdown with cognitive dissonance. In other words, that means there’s a heck of a lot more distress coming my way.
Problem 3: Toxic Positivity Prevents Us from Getting the Support or Help We Need
So, we’ve concluded that it’s okay to experience pain and struggle. We’ve also said that when we tell ourselves it’s not alright to encounter such things, we only set ourselves up for more of them. Now it’s time to wrap up our discussion with one final and very similar, toxic-positivity-related problem. That issue is that refusing to acknowledge difficult emotions prevents us from finding the help, support, or tools required for adequately dealing with them, and that, once again, only leads us to more pain in the future.
To illustrate this idea and keep with our theme from the last section, let’s say I’ve experienced yet another panic attack but refuse to admit it or acknowledge it properly. Again, while this approach may help me get back to somewhat healthy functioning in the short run, it doesn’t solve the underlying issue — it just puts a band-aid on it.
And while I’m all for being optimistic that my panic attacks will eventually go away on their own, my real-world experiences seem to suggest that won’t be the case. Thus, it’s clear I need to do something about them — I just don’t want to admit that to myself.
The main reason why is I’m afraid of what doing so would mean for me. Specifically, I know that investigating my problems in earnest could lead to even more pain than another panic attack, and I don’t like the thought of that.
However, if I were to zoom out and think about this one in more detail, I’d likely see that my refusal to acknowledge these emotions is not only preventing me from getting the help I need before I can move forward with my condition — it’s also continuing my vicious, cyclical experience with it. Sure, addressing my fears in the short term may be difficult, but is it really going to be worse than encountering panic attacks for the rest of my life? Even though it may feel that way right now, I’d imagine the answer is no.
Thus, the most useful thing for me to do in this situation would be to humbly admit that I don’t currently know how to make sense of these fears, then talk to a family member or doctor about them in hopes of moving forward. To do the opposite, and stay irrationally optimistic despite what my experiences are telling me, would mean keeping myself stuck where I am. And that’s not much of a strategy at all.
The Solution to Toxic Positivity
So, we’ve dispelled the idea of toxic positivity being a viable strategy in our lives. But, what, then, should we replace it with? Toxic negativity? I imagine it isn’t hard to see how that wouldn’t be of much help either.
What could be useful, however, is an outlook that balances those two toxic mindsets — one we can call realistic optimism. When we’re realistically optimistic, we don’t dismiss what our experiences or emotions tell us, nor do we allow them to debilitate us. Instead, we calmly listen to them, as difficult as that may be at times, and let them guide us where we want to go in life. And while getting to such places may first require change, help, or support, we understand that and proceed through such a process as best we can.
If we were to relate this new approach to something like dealing with anxiety, it would tell us the following: “I realize how terrible living with constant fear is. I’m not going to sugarcoat your condition or the difficulty associated with it. But I’m also not going to allow you to drown yourself in sorrow over it. It may be very challenging, but we will get through it. So many people all over the world already have, and you will be one of those people soon, given the right amount of dedication and willingness to acknowledge your experiences. Trust me.”
Though it might seem as if a more pessimistic approach to our challenges would be the true opposite of toxic positivity, with a little bit of reflection, I think we find that this new, steady, and level-headed mindset is the actual antithesis of it. For not only does it not ignore negative feelings, but it also helps us process and move through them. When we can reliably do those two things, we’re in much better shape to weather life’s inevitable storms and secure ourselves much less toxic futures.
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