“Good vibes only.” It’s a saying most of us have heard (or said) at one point or another. And while it seems pretty harmless, taking it too literally can veer into toxic positivity territory. Very generally, toxic positivity is responding to negative emotions with glass-half-full thinking. You might be wondering, “Isn’t positivity a…positive thing?” Yes, to a point. But refusing to acknowledge the not-so-great parts of life can harm your relationships with others and with yourself. That’s we checked in with Shannon Bruin, LMSW, LCSW and therapist with Thriveworks Colorado Springs, for tips on how to strike a healthier balance between staying positive and accepting that positivity isn’t always the answer.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
“Toxic positivity is a term used to describe a central focus and attention on positive emotions, while rejecting negative emotions that may arise,” Bruin explains. While a certain amount of positivity is important, she adds that, “The overuse of positivity can create environments of doubt and distrust, which can ultimately harm relationships and leave interpersonal challenges unaddressed.” Think about it: When someone immediately responds to less-than-pleasant news with platitudes like “You’ll get over it!” it can make you feel like your emotions aren’t valid, or that by not moving on immediately, there’s something wrong with you.
For example, let’s say you’re talking about a problem that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution—say, fertility struggles, a health issue, or a complicated family relationship. Do you want someone to gloss over your experience with a phrase they could’ve pulled off an inspirational poster? Or do you want someone to listen to you and acknowledge that what you’re going through is tough?
Bruin adds, “When we hide negative emotions, they ultimately find a way to show themselves. Sometimes this looks like sarcasm, passive-aggressive behavior or the lack of desire to participate, volunteer, or support others. Moreover, repressed negative emotions can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and the development of low self-esteem. All of which can lead to other negative consequences individually and in relationships.”
So, where do we start in combatting toxic positivity? Here are three places to start.
1. Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
“Overcoming toxic positivity requires courage,” Bruin tells us. “Get used to the fact that it will be uncomfortable and require us to stretch outside our comfort zone.” If you get bad news and your M.O. is typically to assure yourself and others that everything will be fine, it can feel really awkward to change your ways and acknowledge the fact that everything might not be fine. Bruin suggests, “Have the courage to stay in hard places and sit with others in their hard spaces until they pass or evolve.” Rather than giving into toxic positivity because it’s easier in the moment, allow yourself to be a little uncomfortable.
2. Avoid Common Toxically Positive Phrases
Words matter, and when it comes to tricky conversations, it’s important to be aware of the language you’re using. This chart from psychotherapist Whitney Goodman is a handy tool for recognizing common responses that invalidate feelings. For example, if a friend comes to you with bad news, instead of urging her to “Just be happy!” try something like “It’s never fun to feel like that. Is there something we can do today that you’d enjoy?” If you’re having an internal dialogue about something that’s weighing on you, rather than telling yourself, “Just be positive!” tell yourself, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?”
3. Accept That Change Won’t Happen Overnight
Combatting toxic positivity is a lot like unlearning other harmful behaviors; it takes time and it doesn’t happen immediately. Though you’re working on embracing the idea that everything might not be OK, it’s totally normal to slip up every now and then. It’s a change in thinking that won’t happen overnight, but will be worth it in the long run. As Braun says, “To step away from toxic positivity and choose honesty is to take a brave step towards the fulfilling path of whole-hearted living.”