I am 100% down with having a positive outlook on life – I would definitely subscribe to the ‘glass half full’ perspective. However, as with most things in life (including chips and wine!), when positivity is dished out in excess it can become toxic. Toxic insofar as it denies the true, messy complexity that is the experience of human emotions.
All of us are flawed humans, doing the very best we can with the cards that we have been dealt and sometimes even the most measured of us experience jealousy, anger, resentment, greed or any of the other problematic emotions (see the feelings wheel below). Sometimes we act out and behave poorly. Sometimes we hurt other people in the process. Life sometimes deals us more pain and hardship than we can handle, and it sucks to struggle and to feel alone in that struggle. When we deny this pain and hardship with “positive vibes only” tropes, we deny the full emotional experience that we were designed to handle.
So why is toxic positivity so problematic?
When we focus too much on maintaining a positive outlook then we make it incredibly difficult for people around us to honestly voice their pain and struggle. We almost force them to choose between being brave and honest about their challenges or pretending that life is great and they’re doing fine. When we are hiding our feelings, we can find ourselves navigating a painful shame spiral.
A helpful way of exploring that shame story, ask yourself, “If they knew __________ about me, what would they think?” or “Something I wouldn’t want the world to know about me is __________.” If there’s funky stuff that you can fill in the blanks with, then there’s likely some shame to unpack.
I talk about feelings ALL THE TIME. And many of my clients are sick of me saying, ‘well, feelings are for feeling’ but it’s one of the most problematic thing people bring with them into therapy. Often, we haven’t been taught to identify feelings, learn how to name them and how they feel physically in our bodies. I have been known to get one of these out to help people navigate the whole feelings thing:
Additionally, when we suppress our feelings or feel that we need to hide them, research shows it causes greater stress on our body – our nervous system, than it does if we navigate the difficult feelings. Suppressed emotions can later manifest as anxiety, depression or even physical illness – remember we are WHOLE system and it’ very hard to stop emotional pain showing up as physical pain.
Examples of non-toxic / accepting statements:
|Toxic positivity||Non-toxic acceptance & validation|
|“Don’t think about it, stay positive!”||“Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening”|
|“Don’t worry, be happy!”||“I see that you’re really stressed, anything I can do?”|
|“Failure is not an option”||“Failure is a part of growth and success”|
|“Everything will work out in the end”||“This is really hard, I’m think of you”|
|“Positive vibes only!”||“I’m here for you, both good and bad”|
|“If I can do it, so can you!”||“Everyone’s story, abilities, limitations are different, and that’s ok”|
|“Delete negativity”||“Suffering is a part of life, you are not alone”|
|“Look for the silver lining”||“I see you. I’m here for you”|
|“Everything happens for a reason”||“Sometimes life is really shit. How can I support you during this tough time?”|
|“It could be worse”||“That sucks. I’m so sorry you’re going through this”|
If you need someone to talk to about uncomfortable feelings, we have a team of therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing available – please reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org / 03 9077 8194.