COPYRIGHT CITY SANCTUARY THERAPY
No part of this website, including the blog content may be copied, duplicated or reproduced in any manner without the author’s permission.
Any information, materials, and opinions on this blog do not constitute therapy or professional advice. If you need professional help, please contact a qualified mental health practitioner.
Toxic positivity: What are the causes and how to combat it
Toxic positivity is when we respond to situations that would naturally cause emotional distress with false reassurances and positive feelings.
Toxic positivity is dismissing of genuine human feelings that are deemed negative, displaying only positive feelings, despite the circumstances. This can be very harmful as dismissing negative feelings and only focusing on positive ones can mean that we are not in touch with our true selves, denying ourselves what it fundamentally means to be human.
People who display toxic positivity never get to fully appreciate distressful situations for what they are as they feel huge pressure to remain positive. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging negative feelings when things are not going well, or when faced with disappointment. And it's healthier to be honest with true feelings if one is struggling than forge a positive attitude. Toxic positivity can occur on a subjective level, informed by core beliefs that we may have created around help-seeking, competency, and failure. It could be from another person who disqualifies someone's experiences by telling them to focus on the positives - no matter how it hurts, “Chin up, positive vibes only.”
Harmfulness of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity can lead to depression and feelings of isolation, through never getting to fully appreciate, communicate, or share true feelings. The more we shut down, deny, or suppress our feelings, the more we distance ourselves from them, and feel disconnected from ourselves. We also end up feeling disconnected from others as we are not being our authentic selves.
If someone wants to share how they are feeling, and they are being told to concentrate on the positive, it can lead to shutting down and not sharing after all, which is harmful in the long term. This often happens when there is a loved one who is struggling or going through a difficult time, and we want to pick them up, “Come on, you can do it, stay positive!” While there is a good intention, when we only focus on the positives, we never get to appreciate situations and contexts for what they are. That also means we never get to reflect and learn from them.
When we suppress, dismiss, invalidate, or deny feelings, we are simply burying them. We internalise them and they are likely to manifest in uglier and unanticipated ways. This is true for anger, which when suppressed, can manifest as depression (anger turned inwardly) or aggression and rage that gets acted out. Toxic positivity can manifest in relationships - familial, romantic, friendships, and in workspaces. The body is intricately linked to the mind. When we bottle up emotions, they can manifest physiologically in the form of bodily aches and pains.
In his book, The body keeps the score, Van Der Kolk, a trauma expert writes about the link between the psyche and soma in relation to trauma. His work is based on empirical studies on how trauma reshapes the brain, and manifests physiologically, the body becomes the main platform where feelings related to a particular traumatic event is experienced.
Avoidance of negative emotions
The main reason why people engage in toxic positivity is because they want to avoid certain feelings and emotions that are deemed negative. Toxic positivity is a defence against feelings that would make someone feel vulnerable. These feelings cause unpleasant physical sensations due to the physiological changes that take place in our bodies in response to them; this is why they are experienced as negative.
Humans are emotional beings. And our emotions make our lives colourful, rich, and meaningful. Every experience we have is coloured by emotions - that’s why when one remembers a memory, it evokes feelings of either sadness, happiness, joy, anxiety, anger, etc. Even in sleep, our emotional life is active, helping us process. Dreams are a rich part of our subconscious and are emotionally charged.
Without emotions, life would be a dark landscape, just like an empty, arid desert land with no rain, plants, and no life.
Despite emotions being a significant part of who we are, we live in a society where we make rules about certain feelings and emotions, which are deemed negative, bad, or intolerable. This is true of anger, rage, fear and sadness. Even love can be a negative feeling if we anticipate rejection, and if we love someone who does not love us and there is no reciprocity. However, the reality is that there is no such thing as negative or bad emotions. Every emotion and feeling is valid and they happen for a reason. The only way to understand the validity of our feelings is to experience them, reflect on them, and understand the validity of their source. The quickest, albeit detrimental thing most people do in response to certain emotions, is to suppress, ignore, invalidate, or distract themselves from experiencing them. Toxic positivity is a tool for doing exactly that (“good vibes only”), and not giving ourselves the permission to really sit with how one truly feels.
One of the key reasons why some people end up self-medicating anxiety, sadness, worry, shame, and anger with alcohol, narcotics, and sometimes food is to regulate how they are feeling as certain feelings become unbearable. When we suppress feelings, we are denying ourselves who we are as humans. The macho attitude is a key element of toxic positivity.
Low self-esteem and anxiety
Low self-esteem plays a big part in toxic positivity as fundamentally one does not have the inherent trust in themselves to be able to cope with situations that are deemed risky, leaving them feeling vulnerable and powerless. Due to this deep-seated insecurity and fear of judgement, it’s easy to deny or invalidate a situation with positivity, than engage with how it truly leaves that person feeling.
Being able to talk about our feelings in context, expressing them, and acknowledging them for what they are is essential to our personal growth and improving our self-worth. People who adopt toxic positivity tend to be anxious individuals; people who may 'follow the crowd' due to a lack of self-belief. By not confronting the issue at hand and turning it into a positive, it deflects anxiety. They are likely to view the world in all-or-nothing terms, and overgeneralise without considering the meticulous and real issues at hand.
Emotions and their meaning
Feelings and emotions are simply feelings and emotions. No feelings or emotions are negative or positive. Our defence-related feelings - anger, fear, anxiety, sadness - are related to the primitive (evolutionary) part of us which seeks survival. These feelings provoke unpleasant physiological responses because the alert us of impending danger, and prepare us to deal with it. This is why they become unbearable; its not because they are meaningless or menacing. On the contrary, pleasure-related feelings - happiness, joy, euphoria - are considered more tolerable, we want to repeat things that bring us pleasure.
There is no such thing as having emotional problems. Not being able to handle emotions is not because of being weak or a character flaw; it happens because emotions work in powerful but subtle ways, demanding expression and attention. When we deny or suppress them, it is usually something we have learnt to do from a young age. But these feelings may find ways to 'leak out', and we may struggle with regulating them appropriately so they do not cause discomfort.
Emotions and feelings guide us to what’s important to us. Here is what key feelings may mean to us.
Anger is a normal feeling. When we feel angry, we should pay attention to it rather than suppress it. We feel angry because there is a sense that an injustice has been made, and one has been treated unfairly. Anger helps us understand more deeply what one is passionate about, what you care about, where your boundaries are, and what you believe should be done accordingly. Anger only becomes detrimental when we either suppress it, hold on to it, or deny it.
Sadness is a normal feeling we experience which helps us understand the depth of our care for others and what matters to us. The reason we feel sad is because we care about the person or situation. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t feel sad about it not being what we wanted it to be.
The reason we feel guilt is that there is a sense that we violated our moral standards, and we want to do better. It’s the part of us that hold conscience that fuels the guilt feelings. Guilt feelings can help us recalibrate our moral compass and learn to do better in the future.
Anxiety means you are alert, and you want to remain safe and in control. Anxiety is normal, it is our evolutionary tool that has kept us alive though a millennial. Anxiety only becomes problematic when its excessive, chronic , and life limiting. Reminding oneself that you are safe, and normalising anxiety is is a key aspect of managing anxiety. The reason why it causes discomfort if because it provokes unpleasant physiological responses which at times lead to anxiety related disorders- panic disorder, generalised anxiety, OCD, agoraphobia, health anxiety, social anxiety and PTSD.
Combating toxic positivity
There are some potential ways to combat toxic positivity, such as:
- Being able to accept that we cannot get things right all the time and that things can go wrong is a key part of combating toxic positivity and is primary to personal growth.
- Understanding the language of our emotions is key - there is no such thing as negative emotions. Feeling sad, angry, and scared at times is normal. What’s crucial is that it is expressed appropriately; not supressed.
- Developing emotional vocabulary by tuning to and leaning into emotions that you tend to avoid, identifying their source. By understanding them, you can give these feelings a meaning, and they become less scary.
- Learning to share how you truly feel with people you trust when things are not working out and when you are feeling sad, angry, overwhelmed, angry, etc. By stating happiness and optimism in situations that evoke sadness, anger, or anxiety is undermining yourself as human.
- Journaling your true feelings, even if you feel you need to keep a positive attitude in front of others. By journaling, you are able to learn more about your feelings and understand their source.
- Starting to give yourself the permission, freedom, autonomy, and power to make choices about your life. Failure is not the end of the world, its OK to be sad if you fail or if things don’t go your way.
- Surrounding yourself with people you can be vulnerable with and you feel safe to be around.
- Building your self-esteem by taking risks - do something that feels unnatural. Allow yourself to be imperfect and learn from the mistakes.
The only way you learn and grow is through failure. It gives you an opportunity to reflect and figure out the areas you needs to work on. A big part of why we don’t try is because of the core beliefs that we hold about ourselves around failure ,“I am not good enough; I am not entitled to be successful”. These are ancient notions and they should not have so much power over you.
Lastly, there is nothing wrong with a good old cry if you are feeling down & dejected. Crying is cathartic; by crying you are simply being human.