What is toxic positivity? Why experts say the pressure to achieve 'unattainable goals' is harmful

·8 min read
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Positivity is one thing, but at what point does it become toxic? Experts say ignoring negative emotions can have long-term impacts. (Credit: Getty Images)

Having a “good vibes only” approach to life may have short-term benefits, but how sustainable is it for the long haul?

While research has shown that having an optimistic mindset is good for your overall wellbeing, some experts say using it as a way to avoid or suppress negative emotions, either for yourself or for others, can become what's known as "toxic positivity," and that it can have negative long-term impacts. Add that to the growing pressure society places on young people to appear “perfect” online, and the "chin up" messaging can be a recipe for disaster.

"Not only does toxic positivity affect your mental health, but it affects your physical health, relationships and everything that you do," Vanessa Codorniu, a clinical hypnotherapist specializing in online wellness, explains to Yahoo Life. "It also doesn’t let us learn from our experiences because you become too ashamed to unpack them."

That can be especially detrimental for people in today's digital landscape, say experts, where an ever-expanding morass of content, particularly on social media, encourages the rejection or denial of real-world stress.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity refers to a force-fed belief that, no matter how difficult a situation someone is going through, they should maintain a positive mindset rather than taking the mental space they need to assess their feelings. And while looking at the bright side of things is not a bad thing per se, experts argue it becomes toxic when pushed to the extreme.

“Toxic positivity does not have the benefits of true positivity, because the benefits of positive emotions are physical and mental. You have to actually feel the positive ones, not just deny the negative ones," Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, explains to Yahoo Life.

"Toxic positivity is an artificial façade," she adds. "It invalidates the emotions, the lived experience of others, and creates pressure to conform to an unattainable and unhealthy goal. It precludes empathy, which means you actually listen someone to better understand and feel what the other person is feeling, thus toxic positivity can make the recipient feel decidedly worse."

Of course, books and ideas about positive thinking and manifestation are nothing new. The ever-popular Think and Grow Rich was published in the 1930s, for example, and to date has sold over 100 million copies worldwide with its instruction to suppress negative thoughts. Plus, recent books like The Secret and You Are a Badass are modern twists on the idea of manifesting happiness.

But, as Codorniu says, in the era of social media, these messages have morphed into an unhealthy obsession with “manifesting” our positivity instead of working through situations in pragmatic ways. “The New Age movement told us that in order to evolve, or to live a better life, or to be a better self-actualized human, like Maslow's hierarchy of needs and all that, that we had to just be happy. That if you're happy, you attract abundance,” she explains. “So if you don't have everything that you're seeing online or in the media or on TV, well, it's your fault.”

Forms of toxic positivity — and its impacts

Toxic positivity can take many forms, but the main way it manifests itself, according to experts, is from people who attempt to redirect feelings of anger, fear, sadness, depression or anxiety into happy, rather than allowing that person to express them naturally.

For example, when something difficult or traumatic happens, such as the death of someone you love or the loss of a job or relationship, people might offer platitudes, such as, “you will learn from this, "stay positive,” “look on the bright side” or “everything happens for a reason.”

It's particularly visible on social media, where comments like "you’ll get through this," “keep moving forward,” “you got this” and “you’ll show them!" are ubiquitous, explains Codorniu.

"These comments can leave us receiving the message that anything other than happiness isn’t good," she points out, adding that they can manifest into harmful messages we tell ourselves — "I'm to busy to be sad," or "I've got too much going on to slow down," for example.

Toxic positivity can also prevent opportunities for people to process grief and loss and, more importantly, to learn and grow from such experiences.

“You can't deny the human condition,” Rutledge says. “Sometimes life just sucks, right? Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's incredibly challenging. You lose people, terrible things happen. And if you deny that, then you don't process it, you don’t accept it, and it actually does you more harm than good.”

These avoidant type of methods are often taught to us at an early age. “When you were a kid, did you ever say ‘I’m hungry’ and your mother said to you, ‘You’re not hungry, you just ate,’” Rutledge explains. “Or if you say you don’t want to do something and someone says, ‘We’re all gonna be quiet and we’re all gonna have a good time.’ In other words, your entire internal experience has been invalidated.”

That experience can prevent someone from understanding their individual strengths and weaknesses and, ultimately, their confidence in the world, she says.

“When somebody tells you you should be positive, and that's an unachievable ideal, it invalidates your experience, it makes you more helpless, and it means that whatever you were reaching out to them for is not providing you with any kind of social connection or social support,” Rutledge explains. “It is so destructive to people's sense of self.”

"When you don’t allow yourself to slow down and feel your feelings, you start to feel guilt and shame around negative emotions," Codorniu adds. "You want to avoid increasingly uncomfortable feelings, which means you avoid people and situations, taking risks and having difficult conversations that could lead to something beneficial — such as having that deep conversation with your partner, asking for a raise or better accommodations at work, even confiding in a friend."

Codorniu argues these so-called "negative" emotions don't have to be thought of as negative all. "Because guess what? Emotions like anger could show you that something's really wrong in your life," she explains. "Anger can let you know that you're being abused at work or being taken advantage of.”

The same goes for emotions like fear, sadness, depression and anxiety, she notes, adding that these feelings often appear when our brain tells us “something is off” about a particular situation. Pretending these triggers don’t exist could lead to harm down the road.

Tuning it out

Recognizing toxic positivity in yourself and others is the first step to tuning it out, but there are other things you can do to develop a healthier approach. “You have to be willing to set boundaries” with friends in real life and online, explains Rutledge. “You own the block tool.”

Mindfulness is equally as important, as it can help you understand what it is your genuinely feeling so you can learn how to manage your emotions rather than deny them. That, Rutledge adds, can also help you decipher which friends are expressing true empathy.

“You often feel like, when someone comes to you, that you're supposed to fix things,” she explains of the natural response people have when a friend approaches them with their problems. “[But] your job isn't to fix other people. It’s to validate their existence so that they feel good about being authentic.”

“We're all insecure and we're all worried and we're all struggling with various things,” she adds. “You want to know that you're OK being who you are because that actually allows you to be more confident. Like, you got permission to be you. I don't have to worry about how I'm feeling and also how I'm supposed to be feeling or how you expect me to be feeling, or how you want me to feel.”

Making sure your needs are met is just as important, Codorniu says. “I've learned over the years to say, ‘Do you want an advice giver? A cheerleader? Or do you want a listener?’” she explains of certain situations.

“It’s about getting clear about what you need, and being OK with asking for it,” she says. “So if I call someone and I'm like, ‘You know what? I just need you to hear me right now because I'm really pissed,’ they'll just listen. And then another time I’ll say, ‘I’m a little upset with this, but I need to hear that it’s gonna get better. I need to hear the good side of this situation.’”

“When we don't have boundaries, we become codependent,” she adds of the importance of knowing our needs. “When we give our power and our feelings away to other people, we allow them to define who we are.”

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