What is Toxic Positivity? And How to Respond to Your Feelings Instead

Even after years of doing this work, I’ve had moments when I am feeling sad or frustrated and I’ll catch myself thinking, “well, things could be worse!” While this seems pretty benign at first glance (or first thought…), I’ve come to understand how this falls under the umbrella of toxic positivity. What is toxic positivity? It’s the tendency to suppress, ignore, or disregard how one is really feeling, and instead try to force a smile and an optimistic attitude. Why is this toxic? Well, instead of offering you the chance to honor and acknowledge your feelings, toxic positivity encourages you to ignore your actual feelings and to pretend to be happy, which can actually exacerbate feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, or whatever challenging emotion you were originally contending with.

We’ve been inundated with messages to “think good thoughts,” bring “good vibes only,” and to “look on the bright side.” When we are struggling, these messages can be damaging because they amplify the idea that a failure of positive thinking is what is causing us to struggle. Toxic positivity also ignores the reality that there can be external forces that impact our circumstances, regardless of outlook. Basically, by engaging in toxic positivity, you are also gaslighting yourself… Not only are you struggling, but you’re also telling yourself that it’s your fault for not being positive.

If you have found yourself saying the following phrases (either to yourself or to folks you care about), take a moment and consider how it feels to hear them while managing challenging emotions:
-Stay positive!
-Everything happens for a reason!
-Look on the bright side!

Once we can recognize that toxic positivity invalidates our feelings and has the potential to make us feel worse, we are freed up to try something different. If you realize you’ve been engaging in toxic positivity, you’re not alone. As a society we are just now learning how to have a different relationship with feelings; one that doesn’t automatically invalidate and disregard them. Therapy can certainly help with this process, and here are some other ways to respond when you can recognize that you’re struggling (or if a loved one is struggling).

Take the time to name how you’re feeling and offer yourself the chance to validate your feelings. For some of us, this task alone may require a lot of practice. If that’s the case for you, go easy on yourself. Pull up a feeling wheel (there are tons on the internet) and spend some time checking in with yourself, including your body, and try to understand what you’re experiencing. Let yourself know that it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, and that you’re not bad, wrong, or weak for experiencing challenging emotions. If you’re offering support to someone you care about, you can ask them about how they’re feeling and offer them validation too. Just sitting with someone, or saying something like, “that sounds difficult,” can be plenty.

Next, ask yourself what you need. Is it emotional support? Is it time to rest? Is it a good cry? Once you’ve identified what you’re needing, take the time to consider how you can offer it to yourself. In offering support to another, it’s also totally appropriate to ask them what they’re needing. Not everyone will have the answer right away, but by asking you’re prompting them to consider their needs instead of offering your solution (or toxic positivity as a way to avoid discomfort).

Have compassion. When you’re struggling with challenging emotions, compassion can do a lot. Showing yourself or others concern and care is invaluable, and while it may not offer a quick solution, it may mitigate suffering that can accompany the struggle.

While these steps may seem simple, changing our relationship with our feelings and confronting toxic positivity takes a lot of intention and effort. Just like with any pattern that we have established over time; it takes time to create change. If you’d like some help in shifting or transforming your relationship with your feelings, our team at Take Root Therapy would be glad to offer you support! Please don’t hesitate to reach out. You can call or text (323) 388-5578 or email us at info@takeroottherapy.com. And please, have compassion for yourself during the process.

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