Is There Such a Thing As ‘Toxic Positivity?’

Positive words can ring hollow if they deny the full range of our emotional lives.

Posted in , Mar 14, 2019

Real positivity

Positivity, optimism and an upbeat outlook are undeniably helpful in shaping a happy, healthy life. You’re likely reading these words because you are working to cultivate gratitude, peace and joy in your everyday life. And your efforts are well-placed—research shows that optimism has a positive impact on physical and emotional health issues ranging from immunity to aging to mood challenges.

But when I think of positive living, I always feel compelled to add the word “authentic” to the conversation. Authentic positivity is an uplifting attitude that is rooted in reality. It’s this type of positive thinking that can yield real improvements in your life.

The opposite of authentic positivity is what is increasingly referred to as “toxic positivity.” These are optimistic platitudes that don’t acknowledge the reality that human experience is complex, and sometimes painful. Some examples of toxically positive statements are:

Smile—worrying about it won’t help you!”

“Keep your chin up—life is good today!”

“Being down about it will only make things worse!”

In some, even many cases, these statements might be factually true. But when you or a loved one are suffering under the weight of a problem or challenge, hearing them won’t help, any more than shouting, “stop crying!” would successfully slow the flow of tears. 

Toxic positivity shuts down the emotional conversation, which has the ironic result of leaving people feeling more negative, more down and more discouraged about their challenges. 

As the blogger Dani DiPirro writes, “You can be sad, angry, upset, anxious, drained, overwhelmed, unsure or afraid and still be positive.” It’s all too easy to forget this, to deny ourselves our so-called “negative” emotions as we try to walk a positive path through each day.

But as DiPirro points out, “positivity is a mindset,” not an emotion, which means we can carry it into anything life presents us with. 

When we accept our full range of emotions, we can honestly assess each situation and orient ourselves in a positive direction, even—maybe especially—if that means taking a break, having a cry or expressing frustration, anger or disappointment. A positive mindset will support us during those moments, guiding us toward patience, kindness and peace within ourselves and with the world around us.

Have you ever experienced “toxic positivity?” How do you refocus and get yourself back to a place of authentic optimism?

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