What is toxic positivity and how to combat its tyranny over your life

toxic positivity
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Have you experienced toxic positivity? I first heard the term in a recent YouTube interview with psychotherapist Seerut Chawla.

A warm flow of recognition washed through me. I’d experienced this form of shame consistently over my life but never had a name for it.

In my 20s a friend called me a downer when I expressed grief over my family’s emotional neglect. (Another experience which went unacknowledged until Dr. Jonice Webb gave it a name in her research.)

After a tough breakup, another friend told me to “bless and release him”. On the day of the split. The impact of such advice left me feeling ashamed of my grief, which only compounded my bad feelings.

If someone had listened instead of talking me out of my genuine pain, I would have recovered sooner. Instead, it took me nearly as long to get over him as the length of our relationship.

I did myself a disservice by avoiding my emotional pain, stuffing it down, and adding shame to negative emotions when they inevitably arose. I lost the chance to learn from the healthy experience of processing emotions honestly.

You might say I needed new friends and you’d be right. But it’s common for people to encourage you to look on the bright side. Even when you’ve gone through something life-shattering like a death in the family.

Here are a few more examples of toxic positivity. See if you recognize them.

1. The comparison game

Have you noticed yourself denying you’ve got it bad during the pandemic because other people have it worse? That’s toxic positivity.

Have you noticed yourself denying you've got it bad during the pandemic because other people have it worse? That's toxic positivity. Click To Tweet

We don’t allow ourselves to grieve real setbacks because it feels selfish. After all, others’ losses look small in comparison to ours.

But buried feelings don’t disappear. They take root somewhere inside you. Then make their appearance in ways that sabotage you and which you have trouble controlling.

Struggling with self-sabotage? Download the first chapter of It’s Not Your Fault free.

Whereas if you mourned the loss or grievance and gave yourself time to process the emotions around it, you could move beyond the experience in genuine and helpful ways.

2. High-vibe mentality is toxic positivity

toxic positivity

Certain belief systems, like law of attraction, will blame you for your “low vibration”. Your negative thoughts are the reason you’re not getting what you want.

How exhausting to push away justifiable grief, while managing the guilt and shame that piles on any time authentic emotions creep in.

Honestly, I’d rather accept the honest grief, let it run its course, and regain my positivity later. Forced happiness is toxic positivity.

3. Emotional avoidance

Toxic positivity frames an upbeat mindset in spite of tragic circumstances as an act of strength. But emotional avoidance is dysfunction, not strength.

Toxic positivity frames an upbeat mindset in spite of tragic circumstances as an act of strength. But emotional avoidance is dysfunction, not strength. Click To Tweet

It is a failure to tell the truth about your feelings (and reality). It deprives you of the opportunity to process your emotions and learn from them.

When you avoid your pain through toxic positivity, you burden yourself with additional negative emotions.

The shame and guilt you experience when you’re unable to suppress the truth compound your grief by adding self-loathing to the mix.

There’s evidence that repressing emotions this way can lead to physical illness, depression, and anxiety. The Body Keeps the Score, as the well-known psychology book warns us.

What other examples of toxic positivity come to mind for you?

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