When "don't worry, be happy" goes a bit too far
We all have that one friend (okay, maybe more than one and maybe it’s people you’re related to) that no matter what the circumstances they tell you to “look on the bright side”. They’re painfully optimistic to be around - sometimes to the point of feeling gaslighted just talking to them.
In conversation with them we don’t feel validated, seen, or heard. But other than the annoyance of conversing with them, is there really any harm of “looking on the bright side”? For some of us, yes.
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Toxic Positivity is when we don’t allow ourselves (or one another) to fully experience, embody, and process negative emotional experiences. In the process of glossing over or distancing ourselves from the negative we don’t fully engage with our emotional lives. While many of us are raised in the “suck it up buttercup” and “don’t worry, be happy” mindsets, the beliefs we internalize from these messages may not build to the lifestyle of wellbeing we aspire towards.
Looking Closer at Toxic Positivity
There are many tools in the Positive Psychology and Coaching toolboxes. Character Strengths, reframing strategies, self care activities, gratitude practice, meditation - that list goes on and on. Ideally, we’re engaging with these tools from an authentic, internal, genuine desire to build a more positive lifestyle.
But sometimes we (or well intentioned others) use these tools to deny, reject, or mask challenging parts of our human experience. We use gratitude to minimize shame. We use humor to compensate for trauma and triggering. We exercise to avoid our loneliness or restrictively eat to cope with a fear we’re not attractive.
In a position paper published in 2020 Sokal, Trudel, & Babb say
(toxic positivity is to) “reject, deny, or displace any acknowledgement of the stress, negativity, and possible disabling features of trauma, instead looking only through rose-colored glasses”
Just like we all know people who drive us towards the bright side, most of us also know people who are unwilling to engage with their trauma, self-limiting beliefs, and other harmful aspects of themselves, believing that’s unhelpful. If, as the article embedded above says, the point of wellness is integration then not allowing yourself to feel the full range of your emotions, learn from them, and learn to regulate them leaves a piece of yourself un-integrated. It leaves lessons unlearned and parts of yourself rejected.
The Problem with Toxic Positivity
Here are some of the negative consequences with toxically positive behavior:
Invalidates your experience - Just like gaslighting is telling you what you think happened did not, toxic positivity tells you that your emotions aren’t real, don’t matter, or are inaccurate.
Belittles Autonomy - Autonomy is our engagement with self-governance. That we can act under the influence of our own authentic desires. Toxic positivity is, by it’s nature, toxic. That toxicity comes from subverting our authentic expression of challenging emotions and experiences.
Cause you to doubt your intuition and emotions - When you consistently subvert your authentic experience you’re sowing the seeds of self-denial.
Slow or blunt learning - If emotions are information we’re intended to earn from, suppressing your emotions blunts and damages that learning.
May cause shame or guilt - When we do fully experience a negative emotion we may feel shame or guilt for not being able to “buck up” and just be happy.
The Antidote to Toxic Positivity is Authenticity
So what do we do about it?
We learn tools to process and relate to the most difficult problems in our lives. We learn tools to help us grow and learn from our challenges.
That starts with validation - Ideally this can come from trusted relationships, but you can validate your own experience when necessary.
To own your emotions, hold space for them, and then meet them with self-compassion.
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