Self-Care & Toxic Positivity

Self-Care & Toxic Positivity

Have you ever been struggling and had someone cheerfully tell you to just think positive (or stop being negative!)? It’s a really effective strategy towards feeling better… oh, wait no it’s a really effective strategy to piss me off. 

I haven’t always had access to my anger when people have acted this way. Instead I usually felt guilty or ashamed or sad. I also felt dismissed, but didn’t understand dismissal until years and years later. 

Yes, there is a place to offer and cultivate authentic positivity. Unfortunately, a lot of positivity can look pretty on the outside, but be dangerous on the inside. When people push a “positive only” approach to things, they take the realness out of both positive and negative experiences. 

Toxic Positivity in Difficult Times

Life right now is hard for everyone. We need to make it okay for ourselves and for each other to feel what we need to feel. For many people it can be tempting to rush towards finding the positive as a way to cope with stress. That can be really healthy. But when positivity is the only acceptable option, it can be really unhealthy. 

When I was teenager and had this experience of “positive vibes only”,  I embraced my “negativity”. I was a self-proclaimed cynic. Deep down I didn’t want to be such a smart-ass buzz-kill. But, if I was forced to pick between honest experiences of “negative” emotions and forced/fake “positive” emotions I didn’t have it in me to embrace the lie. We need space to process all kinds of emotions in order to find an honest kind of positivity. 

As I got older I learned how to exist authentically with all sorts of conflicting emotions. Sometimes I wondered, maybe I was just an intense and moody teenager? But that still didn’t sit well with me. There had to be something healthy even in my “negativity”, but what was it? 

And finally! I came across the term “toxic positivity” and it all made sense. When people take positivity as the only way to see or feel life it becomes toxic. Psychology Today explains  — “the phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.” 

How Toxic Positivity is Dangerous When Others Do It to You

When someone spreads their toxic positivity to you, it’s dangerous for several reasons:

  • One of the biggest reasons is toxic positivity dismisses or invalidates feelings or experiences that don’t fit into the sphere of “positivity” and layers on other emotions like shame, guilt, or embarrassment. These emotions only add more stress to an already stressful situation. You don’t have an opportunity to process the uncomfortable emotions and in addition you get a host of add-on emotions that aren’t helpful.
  • With shame, guilt, and embarrassment we are more likely to pull away from others, keep things to ourselves, and eventually have greater isolation or disconnection from others. This results in decreased social support during times of need. 
  • You may also internalize these messages of judgment and suppress feelings. This can lead to emotions intensifying and decreasing your ability to effectively cope. 

How Toxic Positivity is Dangerous When You Do It to Yourself or to Others

As the previous section mentions, if you use toxic positivity you’re doing yourself a major disservice in a couple of key ways:

  • You’re not dealing with how you really feel. On the surface this can be a benefit because you get to avoid things that are uncomfortable or painful. However, it’s a dangerous long-term approach. Everyone will experience moments where we can’t avoid difficult feelings. By allowing yourself to feel all the different emotions more regularly, you will have more  opportunities to develop your skills to navigate both the highs and lows of being human. 
  • By avoiding how you really feel the intensity of the feelings will increase.  According Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist,  “When we pretend that emotional pain doesn’t exist, we send a message to our brain that whatever the emotion is, it is in some way bad or dangerous. If our brain believes we are in a dangerous situation, our body will respond as such. For example, we may experience rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and a natural need to unnecessarily avoid the misperceived dangerous situation. When we avoid any kind of emotional discomfort, even physical pain, we end up unintentionally making those feelings larger, louder, and more overwhelming.”
  • You could push away loved ones or have less meaningful relationships. Toxic positivity can come from a place of good intentions. You may think you are being supportive by offering “positivity”, but in reality you’re participating in the same harmful process outlined above. By only focusing on the positive it may be coming from a place of avoidance instead of sitting there in the discomfort and having a real connection with someone. 

What to do instead:

Be super negative and grouchy all the time! Just kidding. We’re not saying throw positivity out the window. Here’s what to do instead:

  • Feel the feels. By allowing yourself to feel what you need to, you eliminate the pressure to feel a certain way and process what’s needed. Fight guilt and the desire to suppress feelings
  • Avoid swinging the other way and getting sucked into negativity. Cultivate authentic positivity. See below. 
  • Be intentional when you interact with others:
    • If someone around you is throwing around toxic positivity, be sure to set and enforce healthy boundaries.
      • Remind yourself of the unhealthiness of toxic positivity 
      • Practice self-compassion
      • Speak your truth
    • If you feel yourself wanting to respond to others with a knee-jerk “let’s be positive!” approach, try this instead:
      • Be quiet and just listen. Just sitting with someone (especially a loved one) when they are going through a difficult time can be a huge comfort. Even as adults we benefit from “co-regulation”, or when one nervous system connects and calms another
      • Don’t let your discomfort with certain feelings cause you to rush to a “fix it” response. A lot of times, people don’t want their problems fixed by someone else, they just want to be heard. It’s a common tendency to avoid uncomfortable feelings, but encourage yourself to cultivate an ability to sit with the weirdness and know that you will be okay. 
      • Needless to say, shaming someone for expressing their frustration or feelings other than positivity is wrong. Shaming in itself is ineffective. You don’t have to agree with someone’s negative vibes, but shaming is just plain wrong. 

The Science of People put together a nice reminder of how to avoid toxic positivity: 

Weekly Challenge:

In the coming weeks my self-care challenge is to embrace what I’m feeling without judgment and attachment (<- that one is a little harder for me). I’m going to be stealthy and smooth — a ninja like presence that powerfully overcomes my tendency to get negative or get sucked into other people’s toxic positivity. And if you get your toxic positivity up in my space I’m going to crack it open like a board in karate!

I hope you join me in this adventure of taking positivity back and getting real with it. It’s empowering and sometimes even a little fun.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Amy Finn

    Girlfriend, I was “snapping” through this whole thing. I completely agree with the shame that can come when positivity is what is expected! As a person who is quite an optimist by nature, I have found this overwhelming need to hold onto positivity during really difficult times as a covering over the real feels!! No more cloak for me!! I am going to let the feelings fly…. be ready

    1. Kelsey Wild

      I like how you phrased it “overwhelming need to hold onto positivity” — I don’t think we talk about this tendency. I think it can be a powerful protective factor for resiliency, but it can also be used like you said as a way to cover up real feelings.

      Also, thank you for replying to the blog! I love hearing from you and I’m bummed the earlier comments got messed up. 🙁

    2. Kelsey Wild

      I like how you phrased it “overwhelming need to hold onto positivity” — I don’t think we talk about this tendency. I think it can be a powerful protective factor for resiliency, but it can also be used like you said as a way to cover up real feelings.

      Also, thank you for replying to the blog! I love hearing from you and I’m bummed the earlier comments got messed up. 🙁

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