“The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”
– Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck
There is absolutely nothing wrong with maintaining a positive outlook in life. The ability to see the silver lining in the direst of situations is a great life skill that many people aspire to have. However, anything in excess is not a good thing.
When you (or someone you know) insist on taking optimism to the extreme by rejecting any and all emotions other than “positive vibes,” toxic positivity is born.
What is Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is refusing to allow yourself to feel sad, angry, or disappointed, and blocking off these ‘negative’ emotions for the sake of keeping things light. Toxic positivity is your co-worker downplaying the very real impact of social issues on the mental health of individuals, haughtily proclaiming that ‘Happiness is a choice!’ Toxic positivity is your own mother shaming you for feeling down because “Well, other people have it worse and don’t complain nearly as much as you do!”
The 7 Different Ways Toxic Positivity is Harmful
It’s important to understand that most messages of positivity come from people who have their hearts in the right place. Still, it’s equally important to recognize why toxic positivity can be harmful for various reasons, regardless of how pure the intent of those engaging in it:
1. It invalidates very real feelings and struggles
When someone tells you that they’re feeling sad or broken-hearted and your response is to tell them that happiness is a choice they can make, you’re basically telling them that their problems are not real or at least not that important to matter.
Forcing someone to put on a happy face when they have valid reasons to feel bad causes the other person to question their own emotions and personal experiences. It makes them doubt the validity of their emotions, leaving them without any room to acknowledge their pain, and therefore deal with the trauma in a healthy way.
Instead of trying to downplay someone else’s troubles to try and make them feel better, first, you have to acknowledge that their pain is coming from a very real place. Now, if you’re the one being bombarded with messages that are bordering on toxic positivity, let this be your affirmation that what you’re feeling is valid, and you’re allowed to feel bad no matter what other people may think.
2. Pent-up negative emotions are bad for you
Have you ever experienced or witnessed someone break down because of a seemingly mundane thing like a restaurant messing up their order or running out of cereal or milk midweek? More often than not, that seemingly insignificant thing is not the only true reason for the breakdown. It’s highly likely that the negative emotions have been simmering under the surface for a while, waiting for a chance to explode, and that tiny incident just sealed the deal for the waterworks to flood open.
This is what happens when people suppress their emotions for the sake of faux positivity – all the negative emotions never really go away because they are not dealt with properly. The frustration, disappointment, fear, anxiety, or loneliness simply gets swept under the rug instead of immediately processed and disposed of.
The next time someone puts on a smile because you told them to just be happy, remember that you are simply asking them to push down the negative emotions, which would inevitably find its way back up in more dangerous, hurtful ways.
3. It adds guilt and shame to the equation
Another classic move that panders to toxic positivity is comparing one’s pain to another’s, hoping they would realize that their problems are not nearly as big as they think it is. But when someone is going through the inexplicable pain of losing a pet, bringing up that some other people are dealing with the obviously bigger loss of a relative does not help – at all. Telling them to cheer up and “stop being sad” because other people have it worse does nothing to ease their pain. It’s tantamount to saying, “How dare you be sad when you have it so much better than most people?”
All it does is sow the seeds of guilt and shame to the person who is currently already hurting, too. Bringing up other people’s bigger misfortune or tragedy makes them feel embarrassed about their current disposition, and might cause them to withdraw from seeking help altogether. Their tendency would be to try and deal with their pain alone and in isolation – which could lead to catastrophic results.
If we want to encourage people to seek help when they need it, toxic positivity is definitely not the way to go.
4. Toxic positivity puts pressure on productivity
When someone is sad or hurting, we generally don’t expect them to be as productive as someone who is feeling perfectly fine. But when you don’t even recognize someone else’s pain, you’re basically sending a message that you expect them to be positive and productive despite the difficult times they’re experiencing.
Telling someone to “rise and shine because it’s a beautiful day,” when you know for a fact that they’re going through something hard is insensitive, and places them under pressure to be productive and happy regardless of what they’re truly feeling.
Remember that your words carry weight, so always get a feel of the room first before you come barging in with toxic platitudes that may or may not be welcome. Everyone going through a hard time deserves the time and space to heal before they can be expected to dive back into their normal way of life, and this includes yourself.
So if you are feeling down and someone forces rainbows and sunshines upon you, know that you have every right to refuse acceptance, because pain demands to be felt, and sometimes the best way to get through it is to let it wash all over you until you personally decide that enough is enough.
Society already puts too much pressure on us to remain productive even on difficult days, so we should at least take it upon ourselves to cut each other some slack and give each other a break anytime we can.
5. It diminishes empathy and compassion
Experiencing the gaslighting that comes with toxic positivity begins a chain reaction that diminishes empathy for everyone involved. Rejecting someone else’s true feelings because happiness is much easier to deal with than negativity makes us terrible friends who are only around when things are going well. In turn, those who have been subject to toxic positivity develop an aversion to feelings that are negative, but not inherently bad. In effect, they start practicing the same toxic positivity they were once subjected to.
See, when you don’t allow someone to deal with their trauma openly because you’d much rather they stick with spreading “good vibes only,” they tend to hold others by the same standard of staying positive all the time, hence they start parroting things like, “You have it so much better and easier than other people, so suck it up.”
Soon enough, there wouldn’t be enough compassion to go around – just a bunch of people who trade ‘uplifting’ messages without truly acknowledging what they actually feel.
6. Honoring pain is key to progress and emotional growth
As Mark Manson points out in his book ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck,’ “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires.”
Emotional growth takes place when one takes the time to process pain and trauma. If it’s constantly getting pushed down or swept under the rug, you are not giving yourself the privilege of triumphing over things that are bringing you down. It’s the same exact reason therapists encourage you to talk about what happened and what you feel about what happened – acknowledging the existence of a problem is always the first step towards solving it.
Endlessly convincing yourself that you’re fine or letting other people do this for you will not help you move forward on the path to progress and recovery.
7. Happiness is not something you can fake into existence
There are indeed some things you can manifest into existence. Fake it ‘til you make it, as they say. Unfortunately, happiness is not one of those things. True happiness cannot be forced or imposed on you – sometimes not even by yourself.
A study by Stanford researchers even found that denying negative feelings lead to higher levels of depression. Those negative feelings will eat you up from inside if you don’t allow yourself to even feel them.
Bottomline: It’s okay to be sad sometimes. All your reasons for not being okay are valid, and you have to care about yourself enough to not let anyone tell you otherwise. At the same time, the struggles of other people are just as valid as yours. Make sure that at the very least, you don’t become the reason they start developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as toxic positivity.