Toxic Positivity, are words or pithy sayings that you’ve probably heard said to you many times when you’ve been in need of understanding and encouragement. Especially so if you have had an incident which has caused you to fall upon hard times, feel low, or have some ongoing problem or illness that you just can’t seem to overcome. As a consequence, you find yourself in need of support or encouragement, yet find that you are instead receiving something else, which doesn’t actually make you feel supported or encouraged. You feel the total opposite. I know I have.
By way of example, and particularly in my case with having gone from mild ME to moderate ME and now severe ME, I am very in tune with my body and its symptoms. Enough to know when I’ve overdone it, when I’m getting a migraine, or yada yada (those with ME will understand what I mean and what I am saying here) …
And so when I say, for instance,
‘oh no, I’m getting a migraine’ or ‘oh no, I’ve triggered too much adrenaline, I know I won’t sleep tonight’, or ‘I’m getting sicker …’, and so on …
It is ‘toxic positivity’ when the reply I receive, given in the name of so called ‘encouragement’, is something like,
‘awe no you won’t, don’t say that, you’re being negative, if you expect it then you will surely get it … it’s as though you’re telling the universe what you want and the universe will give you just that … maybe try and be more positive, it will work … just try it and see’.
Hearing this. Being told this. It does nothing more than undermine my self insight and shows me that you have absolutely no understanding or genuine care for me or my situation. In fact, to hear those kinds of words is downright disrespectful to me. It feels dismissive. Moreover, in truth, it might well be claiming that I am sick because I think I am or implying that I want to be this way. Personally, I see this as ultimately telling me that I am lying about how things are for me or that I could change my health by simply thinking differently or in a so called better manner.
These ideas and ways of treating someone follow the faulty thinking that psychology experts route as the means to explain our sickness (as in ME), which in turn promotes GET and CBT to very sick people, resulting in making them much sicker.
They are simply just not true. In fact, they really could not get any further away from the truth. My experience of ME is that you cannot impact it, either negatively or positively, with mere thoughts or words alone. However, with belief systems like these it’s no wonder that people with ME are treated so badly by friends and family and even more shockingly by the medical profession too.
. . . T O X I C . . .
. . . P O S I T I V I T Y . . .
what is toxic positivity …
In very simple terms, ‘toxic positivity’ can be understood, and presents, as an obsession with positive thinking encompassing the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.
In view of the this, and in light of the devastating impact ‘toxic positivity’ can have on relationships, it is important to distinguish ‘toxic positivity’ from genuine and useful support and encouragement.
To help us understand some of the differences we need to determine what ‘toxic positivity’ actually is. And in this endeavour it will be useful if we first take a look at what ‘toxic positivity’ is not.
Accordingly, it can be categorically stated that ‘toxic positivity’ is not genuine encouragement and / or empathy given at the right time. Genuine encouragement and empathy given at the right time are what you ought to expect to receive when you have any kind of problem or long-standing illness, and more so with ME. Yet, ‘toxic positivity’ is what you will often receive.
Therefore, in total contrast, when ‘toxic positivity’ is used, the giver is almost always, even though they would never agree, offering the absolute opposite of genuine encouragement and empathy in the form of a so called ‘positive’ claim or statement, which may be well intentioned and meant to make you feel better. When it is pointed out to them that their words are not, by any means, encouraging, they may offensively, and even jocosely, claim that you’ve misunderstood or mistaken their intent or meaning and if you just got it, then you’d get the truth of what they really meant.
But more importantly, in every situation when you’ve been stung with ‘toxic positivity’ you will know because it will hurt your soul rather than soothe it.
From the above we could rightly conclude that, ‘toxic positivity’ involves the dismissing of negative emotions and responding to a person’s distress with false reassurances rather than encouragement and empathy.
some definitions …
‘Toxic Positivity’ can be defined as:
the over generalisation of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimisation and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience …
very well mind : toxic positivity:
is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.
Given those descriptions then I feel it is of paramount importance that we aim to not use toxic positivity with the chronically sick. It could, and has been known to, destroy them.
forms of toxic positivity …
As already mentioned above, ‘toxic positivity’ can present in a variety of forms. From infrequent overly positive encouragement to an obsessive need to put a positive spin on everything, even when the idea of being positive about a particular incident or episode would seem like a really unhelpful way to offer encouragement to someone.
It could also be argued that being overly and unrealistically positive comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions, which is just as bizarre as always being negative.
Real life is never all positive or all negative, it is always a combination of highs and lows and therefore our emotions will reflect this. When they don’t, we are in danger of becoming either all positive or all negative. Both being unbalanced extremes.
Therefore, being positive all the time can be mildly annoying on one level and seriously offensive on a whole other level. No one wants to be around someone who is always negative and likewise so with the obsessive and unrealistically ever positive person, especially when what you need is acknowledgment, understanding and encouragement. It just really is not helpful.
So just don’t okay … really don’t …
Interestingly, ‘toxic positivity’ can be something you do to yourself, or to others, and also be something that others do to themselves, or to you. Either way it is dangerous and hurtful and at its worse soul destroying.
signs of toxic positivity …
It can be fairly easy to know when you’re on the receiving end of ‘toxic positivity’ from a well meaning friend or family member because of how it makes you feel. However, it can often be difficult to see or know when you are subjecting yourself to it.
Personally, when I hear these kind of ‘support’ or ‘encouragement’ statements, from myself or others, I feel deflated, not good enough, dismissed, and somewhat lacking. So, even if the goal in using so called positivity is to encourage it hardly ever does and the way it makes you feel will tell you if you’ve been subjected to it or not. Mostly, if you’re in need of encouragement and empathy and feel otherwise you will know you’ve been subjected to one form of ‘toxic positivity’ or another.
Therefore, to help you identify ‘toxic positivity’, pay attention to how you feel when someone is ‘encouraging’ you.
Also, take into account some common ways that ‘toxic positivity’ can show up in our everyday life as listed below:
toxic positivity in everyday life
- trying to just ‘get on with it’
- trying to give someone perspective, for example ‘it could be worse’ instead of validating their emotional experience
- hiding and/or or stuffing down / dismissing feelings / emotions / thoughts in order to mask your true feelings
- feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
- dismissing and/or hiding all negative feelings and emotions often behind positive quotes or sayings
- minimising other people’s experiences with ‘feel good’ or ‘positive’ quotes or statements
- shaming and/or chastising yourself and/or others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
- brushing things off that are bothering you with the idea that, ‘it is what it is’
- claiming that your life is all sunshine and rainbows
- telling yourself and/or others to just stay positives!
- having a good vibes only stance
- telling yourself and/or others it could be worse, there is always someone else worse off
- believing things happen for a reason
- thinking that failure isn’t an option
- believing that happiness is a choice
on the receiving end of toxic positivity …
Being on the receiving end of ‘toxic positivity’ feels, as noted above, demoralising and as though you are alone and unsupported.
When someone you look to for support claims, ‘just think like blah blah blah or blah blah blah, it will work … you’re being too negative’, it is isolating and simply not good enough and as already mentioned.
Furthermore, it is harmful to your emotional and mental stability and will have a negative impact on you personally and the friendship, and in so many ways too. Some of which will be discussed next?
how it affects you …
We know that ‘toxic positivity’ can be harmful especially for those already going through difficult times. The reason being, at a time when you need to feel supported instead you can feel dismissed, ignored, chastised, and that your reality is being invalidated.
Such ‘positive vibes only’ mantras can be particularly grating during times of distress. Because, when you are coping with difficult situations such as ongoing ill health, financial troubles, job loss, or the loss of a loved one, being told that you need to look on the bright side can seem downright cruel.
This ‘toxic positivity’ can feel like and lead to some of the following responses:
Shame is a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by something or someone external to yourself. Consequently, when someone offers support, in the form of ‘toxic positivity’, they are literally telling you:
(1) how you ought to feel
(2) how you actually feel is unacceptable
And, they are doing this at a time when you need to feel supported and want to know that your feelings and emotions are valid and that you can find relief and love in their friends and family. Yet instead, ‘toxic positivity’ tells you that the emotions you are experiencing are unacceptable.
In the name of shame, to force a positive outlook on pain is to as well encourage a person to keep silent, or shameful, about things. Therefore, because on the whole we would rather not be seen as ‘needy’ or be a nuisance, when the choice is between being brave and honest or pretending that everything is going great, we often adopt the latter.
Brené Brown claims that the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy, and judgment. In other words, where there is hiding, secrets, and denial, shame is usually in the driver’s seat.
Shame is crippling to the human spirit and one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can feel. Often, we don’t even know that we are feeling shame.
A way to determine if what you are feeling is shame is to ask yourself:
if they knew ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH’ about me, what would they think …
Another thing to ask yourself:
something I wouldn’t want people knowing about me is ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH’ …
If you can fill in the ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH’ with ANYTHING, whether it be a situation, a feeling, or an experience there is a high likelihood that there is some shame around that.
As a result of shame, we will often suppress our emotions in order to appear to be in control or even ‘over it’ by putting on a ‘fake’ persona or ‘cheery’ attitude to appear to others as ‘together’. In effect, we deny our truth in order to be acceptable.
Yet, time and again research shows that it is healthy to express our emotions and that holding them in or pretending they don’t exist causes stress on the body. Such research has shown the effects of suppressing emotions can long term lead to depression, anxiety and other physical health problems such as, high blood pressure, chest pain, headaches, sleep problems, digestive issues, muscle weakness and troubles concentrating to name a few.
Consequently, it is extremely important to acknowledge our reality by talking about it and allowing our feelings out. This in turn keeps us balanced and mentally sane whilst acting as a release mechanism so that stress and tensions don’t build up causing a backlog of health issues.
Guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong, something that you ought to feel shameful about. It is another knock on effect of ‘toxic positivity’ that can keep you silent and stop you from reaching out.
You feel you are guilty and must be doing something wrong because you aren’t finding, or maybe can’t find, a way to feel positive in what you face. Subsequently, you may begin to compare yourself unfairly to others, that you believe to be in the same position as you are. Wrongly concluding that they manage to stay positive more acceptably than you do. This, in turn, compounds the guilt you feel.
Feeling dismissed is the same as feeling invalidated and in the case of ‘toxic positivity’ the invalidation or dismissal of ‘where you’re at’ is paramount. In this case if you are feeling dismissed or invalidated then you are deemed as unworthy of connection with the ‘toxic positivity’ bearer.
Ultimately this means that the use of ‘toxic positivity’ is an avoidance technique employed to sidestep authentic human emotion and its resulting human connection.
avoids humanness and connection
The idea of ‘toxic positivity’ being an avoidance technique goes even further when you address its full meaning.
Full on, it is an avoidance of authentic human emotion and connection. When people engage in this type of behavior, it allows them to bypass emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable. So they never face full on the whole spectrum of human emotion. They do not know how to be human.
Worse still, we sometimes turn these very same ideas onto ourselves, internalizing the toxic ideas we might have heard from others or seen banded around social media on pretty background images. Consequently, when we end up encountering difficult emotions, as we certainly will many times in life, we then use ‘toxic positivity’ towards ourselves, discounting, dismissing, and denying how we truly feel. Ultimately conning and abandoning ourselves.
prevents personal and friendship growth
Furthermore, ‘toxic positivity’ limits growth, personal and friendship alike. It enables us to avoid feeling emotions that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.
Confronting and accepting the ups and downs of life affords us personal growth and the ability to offer acceptance and empathy up to ourselves and others. Meaning, we have much deeper personal insight and are better equipped human beings, making us fit for the role of deeper relationships.
We can be there for ‘us’ and/or the relationships have.
Ironically, ‘toxic positivity’ can have the total opposite of the desired effect. Instead of being encouraging it can be discouraging and make the recipient feel negative about themselves, their life, and their ability, or inability, to be seen as positive. Simply because they cannot live up to the ‘toxic positivity’ statement of the moment.
But in spite of this, it is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. Still people going through trauma do not need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny outlook. They need to be accepted in the now!
Another effect of ‘toxic positivity’ is that it can plunge a person into isolation.
If we feel unheard, or judged, then our natural way of dealing with this is to retreat. We in effect hibernate from others. We begin to fear sharing and often lose connection with ourselves and our truth maybe even denying our truth to ourselves and others by becoming ‘toxic positive’ ourselves.
In denying our truth, we begin to live inauthentically with ourselves and with the world. We lose connection with ourselves, making it difficult for others to connect and relate to us. We might look unbreakable from the outside, but on the inside we’re just scared little teddy bears longing for a hug.
The relationship with yourself, is often reflected in the relationship you have with others. If you cannot be honest about your own feelings, how will you ever be able to hold space for someone else expressing real feelings in your presence? By curating a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness resulting in counterfeit intimacy and superficial friendships.
how it affects you, as the giver …
Although, ‘toxic positivity’ is often well-intentioned it can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection between two people.
No one wants to share with someone who is all sugary sweet, ‘just think happy thoughts’, pollyanna kind of person? How comfortable are you with spilling your guts about the deep emotions you’re feeling?
In contrast the giver will often feel like they are sharing or throwing their so called ‘pearls’ before ‘swine’ and they too might not be comfortable sharing their ‘toxic’ resources.
how it affects you, as the receiver …
As stated above, although ‘toxic positivity’ may be well intentioned, the receiver will often feel the total opposite to the giver.
The receiver will likely feel as though they, the giver of ‘toxic positivity’, is throwing their ‘toxic’ spew before a ‘suffering’ human who needs empathetic understanding and support.
why is toxic positivity so harmful …
The main issue to the receiver is that ‘toxic positivity’ promotes poor mental health.
Because of social media and ‘results’ based work and home environments, ‘toxic positivity’ appears to be on the increase. Its main source of harmfulness is that you are going to come up against it more so now than ever before and it can lend you towards self criticism on top of others’ criticisms.
how to avoid toxic positivity …
One major way to avoid ‘toxic positivity’ is to let yourself feel your feelings, and also let others share theirs without needing to fix them.
Another way is to clarify what you want from a conversation partner. Set the boundaries straight off. Explain or express that you are comfortable with your emotions, negative, positive, or otherwise.
Blah blah …
alternatives to toxic positivity …
Even though ‘toxic positivity’ abounds there are things that you can do to protect yourself again being either a giver or receiver of it.
It is paramount to let yourself feel your feelings, and let others share theirs too without you needing to fix them. Be a healthy space for other others.
If you find you are someone who is often on the receiving end of ‘toxic positivity’ it’s a good idea to enforce some healthy boundaries with anyone who tries to pass judgement on your experiences. Know who you are. Know what is real about your experience and don’t let anyone gaslight you about what you know to be your truth. Hold your ground.
Being a healthy human being involves being conscious of ourselves and how we show up in the world. If you recognize yourself as a transmitter of toxic positivity, it’s time to cut it out. You’re hurting yourself and the people you care about most by insisting on this monochromatic mindset. Instead of practicing toxic positivity, aim for balance and the acceptance of both good and bad emotions rather than all-or-nothing thinking.
Let’s all put an end to and stop ‘toxic positivity’ by clarifying what you want from your conversation partner and if that’s not what you find then set your boundaries and be your own non toxic support.
- I’m listening
- I’m here no matter what
- that must be really hard
- sometimes bad things happen, how can I help
- failure is sometimes part of life
- your feelings are valid
Add your own ideas to this list because only you know what you needs.
… it’s OK to not feel OK– these feelings are valid …
… how others see you is not important …
… how you see yourself means everything …
in summary & in conclusion …
In conclusion, from all of the above we can deduce a few important take aways:
- in every situation when you’ve been stung with toxic positivity you will know because it will hurt your soul rather than soothe it
- it is perfectly ok to be not ok
- often, toxic positivity is well intentioned
- it affects both giver and receiver
- it makes the receiver feel bad about themselves in many emotional ways
- it destroys relationships
- it destroys humanness
- it causes ill health
- it is imperative that we express our truth rather than deny it
- denying our truth is proven to results in health issues
Therefore, we could finally, and rightly so, conclude that no matter how well intentioned, ‘toxic positivity’ involves the dismissing of real life emotions; by categorising them as negative, and responding to a person’s distress with false reassurances rather than support and empathy and it will hurt your soul at the very least but might well hurt your health long term.
a personal concluding note …
I realise that this blog is very fragmented. It is very much reflective of how I feel a lot lately.
This post has to have been the hardest and least flowing piece I have ever written. While writing, I struggled to format and make the blog flow due to having to take days and even weeks breaks in between each writing sessions and so I lost my flow and my way plenty of times. I would have a thought and loose it. I would spend an hour of catching where I am up to and then cannot do any more. I read. I rest. I write … I read … I keep trying.
More importantly, while I researched I also copied ideas from others posts by way of a reminder of what points I wanted to include. However, amid all the fragments of thought, work, illness and coming back to the post, I have lost what’s mine and what’s someone else’s work. Moreover, if I ever use anyone else’s ideas or refer to their thoughts I like to quote them as the owner of such and link back to their post too. I am not completely sure that I have not used bits of other’s ideas and writings and I know if I have used anyone else’s work that I have failed to reference them for it because I have not been able to remember where it came from. This is the main reason for determining, as stated here in my personal conclusion, that I will not write researched pieces any more. My health, energy and cognition need to be far weller than they are to do a researched educative piece justice.
I will tweak this post many times over the coming months, because I am not happy with it but because I’ve put so much effort and spent so much energy on it I cannot let it go. So please do revisit this blog as it might get better with time.
However, I think this will be my last in-depth subject for a while. I need to learn a new technique whereby I write on a more personal level rather than an educational angle and just let my writing flow out of me, not be a well researched piece.
Please feel free to contact me to share your outcomes or with any questions you may have.