The phrase “toxic positivity” is floating around more than ever. But what does this term mean? Naturally, most head to Google to search for the answer. We posted on this topic in 2019 and wanted to provide an update as it is clear that the pandemic has created a drastic shift in the presence of toxic positivity. More than ever, people are engaging in toxic positivity most likely as a result of pandemic related events and renewed efforts to “be positive, live life, and let things go” after two years of stagnation.
what is toxic positivity?
We have all had the friend or family member who tries to be helpful by telling us to “forget about something,” “let something go,” or “not to worry.” Chances are though that when this happens, you may feel shutdown, or as though you are not able to continue venting or sharing your thoughts and emotions since it seems the other person does not want to hear about it or does not agree with how you are reacting.
The truth is, these statements are often actually well-intentioned. The problem is these statements are marginalizing and diminishing of your thoughts, emotions, or experiences.
These types of statements are what we call toxic positivity. The message on the surface is one of positivity and trying to be helpful by simply suggesting that something is not a big deal or.you should let go of worrying, etc. However, the message underneath the surface is that whatever you are experiencing is not important, is an overreaction, your thinking is flawed, or you’re being too serious.
Instead of minimizing someone’s thoughts or feelings, the alternative is to provide validation and hope. When we validate, this means that we recognize and verbalize what a person is experiencing (even if we don’t necessarily agree with their perspective). For example, instead of telling a friend “Oh, it’s not a big deal; you’ll get over it,” which is a toxic positivity type of response, a better (I.e., more caring and helpful) response is “This is hard. You have done hard things before though, and I believe in you.”
SOME MORE EXAMPLES:
Instead of: Just be positive.
- Say: I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What are some things that could go right?
Instead of: Think good vibes only!
- Say: All vibes are welcome here.
Instead of: Think happy thoughts!
- Say: It’s probably pretty hard to be positive right now. Let’s find one positive to think about.
Instead of: Just be happy!
- Say: It’s never fun to feel like that. Is there something we can do today that you would enjoy?
Instead of: Stop being so negative!
- Say: It’s pretty normal to have some negativity in this situation.
In the above replacement statements, you are validating what the person is experiencing while trying to encourage hope, find some positivity, or simply just allowing them to sit with their emotions even if they are negative. This is extremely important as people need to feel their emotions, process their thoughts, or simply “sit” in a situation that truly is negative or upsetting. Telling a person to get over how they are feeling or change their reaction without validation sends the message they are wrong or too reactionary.
why people engage in toxic positivity
One of the biggest reasons that people engage in toxic positivity is because they, themselves, are uncomfortable with difficult emotions. Most often, when someone tells you to “be positive,” “it’s not a big deal,” or “don’t worry about it,” it’s because they actually are not comfortable dealing with the emotions that you are experiencing. There certainly are some people who try to focus on the positive at the expense of never dealing with the negative (and most certainly, the pandemic has brought out a new way of thinking focused on being positive, getting out there, not let things holding you back, etc.).
THE EFFECT OF TOXIC POSITIVITY ON CHILDREN
Children are very impressionable. From a young age, they take in messages from their surroundings and learn from others how they should ideally manage difficult situations and deal with their own, and others, emotions. Children who are allowed to express their feelings and who are given a healthy amount of validation and “room” to process difficult experiences are those who grow up to be more emotionally stable and functional adults. On the other hand, when a child is taught from a young age to stuff their feelings and move on quickly, this is likely to become an ongoing method of dealing with difficult situations – and one that will create larger problems in their life.
For children, sending toxic positivity messages can create much more significant problems in the long-run as they may learn to stuff their emotions and ignore situations. This creates difficulties in relationships, self-soothing, and ultimately is ineffective in the sense that emotions don’t just disappear – if a person bottles them up and doesn’t allow them self to feel their emotions, they will eventually come out, but likely in a much more explosive or aggressive way. For all people, but especially children, it is incredibly important to validate, allow the person to share their thoughts and emotions, and not encourage them to shove those things aside to just push forward. Of course, there is a time and place for directly dealing with negative or intense emotions (e.g., pausing to process emotions as the 4th quarter of your son’s football game is about to start isn’t a great time, but make sure to return to the subject to allow them to adequately explore, understand, and feel their emotions).
WE’RE HERE TO HELP
At Tampa Therapy, we are committed to providing a relaxing, healing, and non-judgmental environment to support you on your journey to mental and emotional growth. If you want things to be different, you have to change them. This means being open-minded, committed, and recognizing the power you have in your life. If you are even willing to give change consideration, we are here to help you with the rest. Give us a call or email us today to start the process of making important changes in your life.