In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to draw awareness to things that might be making our mental health worse even if they seem like they should be helpful. The biggest of these is toxic positivity.

 How many times have you heard the saying “don’t worry, it’ll be fine!” This and similar sayings may have been slowly pulling us into a deeper state of depression, especially during COVID. We need to remove these phrases from our vocabulary and validate that sometimes things suck and that’s okay.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that you need to have a positive attitude regardless of what is going on in life. It encourages us to deny or reject any feelings of sadness, anger, or remorse and adopt a “good vibes only” policy. 

Resiliency is important, as is pushing ourselves to do hard things. Sometimes it IS helpful to see the bright side in crappy situations. But similar to most things in life, too much of anything can turn toxic. Forcing ourselves to focus only on one narrative can be damaging to us and those around us.

What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like?

Toxic positivity can take many forms and it is important for us to notice what it might show up like in different situations.

Some examples are:
  1. Feeling the push to “be productive”
  2. Acting as if we are always okay
  3. Hiding our personal wants
  4. Comparing situations to others and how it “could be worse”
  5. Pretending it is fine for our needs to not be met
  6. Feeling guilty for feeling other emotions
  7. Trying to “just move on” instead of allowing ourselves to exist as is

We might be doing these things to ourselves, but we might also be encouraging others around us to look at the bright side just as often. Have you noticed yourself asking others what they’ve done to be productive while staying home during COVID? Have you yourself felt pressure to learn a new skill or pick up another language? You have toxic positivity to thank for that!

Why Is It Bad?

Leads to Shame Response and Dysregulation

Megan Blanton, a Licensed Professional Counselor, states that toxic positivity “dismisses the reality that there are also bad things that happen in life” and that in reality it should be “all about balance. Have a positive growth mindset, but also be able to healthily acknowledge and engage with the hard stuff in life.” When we aren’t able to maintain this balance, we begin to feel shame and resentment in ourselves for not maintaining a more optimistic lifestyle.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown states that shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” If the pressure to be positive and optimistic is making it harder to actually be positive and optimistic, our shame responses will activate and we will have a harder time feeling worthy of connection. 

A study by the University of Toronto[1] showed findings that “The suppression of emotional expressive behavior by one interaction partner deteriorates the quality of the relationship as indicated by less rapport and liking.” Basically, as humans, it is really hard for us to get our own needs met if we are feeling shameful and aren’t able to seek support from others!

Danielle Armour, a therapist specializing in women’s issues, states that toxic positivity “means we can’t be neutral. Our baseline is off and we become dysregulated.” 

A study by Stanford[2] showed that by ignoring or suppressing our emotions, we wreak havoc on our stress system, becoming overwhelmed and having more upsetting and distressing thoughts than we had to start out with! An additional study by the University of Toronto[3] showed that “inhibiting emotions increases the risk of coronary heart disease and hypertension prolongs recovery from traumatic events.” 

What Should We Do Instead?

  • Remind yourself that it is okay to not be okay. This is true not just in a pandemic, but in life. We can’t only feel the emotions we want to feel, but must instead feel all of them! How will we know when things are good if we don’t know when things are bad?
  • Be honest about your experiences! If things suck, let them suck. If you are genuinely happy, be happy! There is no real need to be the best that ever was if it means sacrificing human qualities that improve your quality of life. 
  • Validate others and their experiences. Even if they don’t perceive something in the same way you do, signaling to others that you are with them and can support their perspective goes a long way in stepping away from the toxic mindset.
  • Be realistic! Starting something new or playing into the productivity mindset will often not make you feel better. Pick and choose one or two things that are reasonable to complete and are important to you.
  • Recognize and challenge toxic positivity messages around you. The more we are able to call out ourselves and our loved ones, the farther we go to become a more whole society.

Having the freedom to express our emotions as they really are is hugely important when it comes to regulation of not just our feelings, but our body and relationships as well. If we focus only on being positive, we miss out on the opportunity to grow and create stronger bonds with others.

[1] Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933.

[2] Gross JJ, Levenson RW. Hiding feelings: the acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. J Abnorm Psychol. 1997 Feb;106(1):95-103. doi: 10.1037//0021-843x.106.1.95. PMID: 9103721.

[3] Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933.

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