Toxic Positivity: The Problem with Constantly Searching for the Silver Lining

Portrait Placeholder No Profile Image By Erin O'Neil
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Depressive states, low moods, grief, and other stressors can make someone turn to mental health advocacy for a glimmer of hope. Amidst infographics about bad sleeping habits and Instagram posts promoting personal growth, there lies a common theme: toxic positivity. While staying positive and seeking help is part of mental health care, it can have consequences if we focus too heavily on moving on and up, without acknowledging what bogs us down. We have to be honest with our emotions and avoid falling into this trap instead.

How Toxic Positivity Affects Emotional Well-Being

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult, challenging, or traumatic the situation may be, one should maintain a positive attitude and ignore the negative. While optimism in the face of challenges is something to strive for, unrelenting positivity can be detrimental to our mental and emotional well-being.

As human beings, we experience a variety of emotions. The emotions that exist on the positive side of the spectrum are only a shade of what we can feel, and to only acknowledge the positive is inherently invalidating. Through the lens of toxic positivity, negative emotions become signs of weakness and failure; we may start to feel guilt and/or shame around emotions that are natural, such as anger, sadness, frustration, and grief. When we feel the pressure to always “find the silver lining,” we start hiding painful emotions, stifling our authenticity, ignoring our problems, and reducing our humanness to clichés and catch phrases: “Look on the bright side!”, “Everything happens for a reason!”, and “Just smile through it!”

The Impact of Toxic Positivity on Interpersonal Relationships

Toxic positivity extends to how we connect with others in a meaningful way. If we are utilizing positivity to ignore our own distress, we will not be able to be present for others who are in distress. Just as this kind of positivity leads to invalidating our own feelings and experiences, it will extend to undermining the feelings and experiences of others. If we are living by mottos, we will most likely apply these to others’ situations, leading them to feel unheard, alienated, and ashamed of their own emotions.

How We Can Achieve Emotional Balance

Positivity can be part of a range of tools we use to cope, but how do we prevent it from becoming counterproductive, unhealthy, and even toxic?

  1. Practice mindfulness: It will be difficult to notice how we feel, one way or the other, if we are not present. Regularly practicing mindfulness, grounding ourselves, and observing the way we move through the world will help us to be able to identify and acknowledge what we are truly feeling and will help us to do so without judgment. This is key to reducing guilt and shame.
  1. Explore negative emotions: With mindfulness as our foundation, we can start to explore the range of our emotions and how we experience them. We can explore what different emotions feel like in our bodies and how we express them (e.g., do we cry, run, shut down, fight, yell, etc.). We can build a tolerance to emotional and physical distress. A hallmark of toxic positivity is the belief that positivity is a sign of resilience, but being able to tolerate distress actually builds the resilience we need to tolerate our challenges.
  1. Listen and validate: Just as we work to acknowledge and respect our own emotional experiences, we need to extend that same work to others using the following steps:
  • Listen without the agenda of trying to fix.
  • Empathize rather than focus on our own discomfort.
  • Practice active listening skills using nonverbal cues and reflection, letting others know we hear and validate their struggle.
  • Ask how we can help and support rather than assume what someone else needs to hear. The best thing we can do is to provide the space for someone to be authentic without feeling judged.
  1. Acknowledge conflicting emotions: The central tenet of toxic positivity is that there is no room for anything but optimism, regardless of whether that is the truth of our experience. However, we can feel different and seemingly opposite emotions at the same time. We can experience grief and have hope for the future. We can love someone and be angry with them simultaneously. We can be scared and excited. With mindfulness as our foundation, we can acknowledge the existence of and allow space for the full breadth of our emotions, and our humanness, at one time.

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