If you’re like me, it’s impossible to look at social media and not feel just a little in awe (and if I’m honest, a bit envious) of all the exciting vacations, family events, and fun gatherings people are sharing. Even though I am more of a home body, and I am happy with my life, it still makes me pause and think. Just that one glance at social media – all the smiling faces, the perfect lives, and happy stories, illustrates that we have created a society that celebrates and accentuates everything positive.
Everywhere you look there are sayings and signs that tell you to just stay positive, no matter what your situation. “Colorado Strong,” “We’re In this Together,” “Keep Calm and Carry On,” are just a few.
This puts an immense amount of pressure on you to be—or act—happy all the time.
So, what happens when your social media posts or life experiences don’t meet these high expectations? What happens when you are going through a difficult time and just don’t feel positive? In truth, it can leave you feeling isolated, alone, and disillusioned.
And that is just social media. It is becoming increasingly prevalent in our busy, multi-tasked lives, that rather than genuinely taking the time to listen and empathize with a co-worker, friend, or family member who is going through a difficult experience, people unintentionally gloss over or discount their feelings with a basically empty platitude like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Just look at the bright side.” While these phrases are likely said with the best of intentions, they can leave you feeling guilty, confused, judged, or worthless for feeling angry, sad, or disappointed. This is called toxic positivity. In expressing your feelings, you are hoping for comfort and caring, but these expressions do not offer you the ability to genuinely feel and work through these emotions and can invalidate your authentic human experience.
To be clear, there is a difference between thinking positively and having an optimistic outlook, and toxic positivity.
If you are like many of us, you can be a generally positive person and still have times of intense distress, doubt, and disenchantment. When you experience healthy positivity, your perspective allows you to feel your negative emotions, work through them, and then lift yourself and others up, and to move through and succeed in achieving your goals despite your difficult experiences. You allow yourself to feel the negative, but you do not live there.
Conversely, the danger of toxic positivity begins when you start believing that to be an optimistic person you must only be positive all the time. Toxic positivity tells you that your negative feelings are not okay, and if you can’t find a way to be positive all the time, then you must be doing something wrong. When you subscribe to this way of thinking and begin denying your negative emotions or glossing over them in favor of emotions that feel better, you run the risk of brushing urgent problems aside or feel you cannot talk about serious issues.
What those social posts don’t show is the flip side, the struggles and hard times those perfect families and friends go through, but they do go through them. All of us do. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to be positive all the time, and it is not healthy to attempt to do so. Negative feelings are not fun, but they serve an important function. They enable you to build your mental toolkit. Feelings like guilt, shame, worry, grief, and anger all require you to resolve or work through the situation that is causing these feelings. What’s more, they can protect you from harm and motivate you to make beneficial changes in your life.
In fact, research shows that simply talking about emotions—even negative ones—can help the brain better process these feelings, making them less overwhelming and leaving you with a better ability to cope. (Psychological Science, University of California, Los Angeles)
So, if all of this has left you wondering how you can identify and combat toxic positivity, tune in to our blog next week where we will offer tips for doing just that.