#positivevibesonly: How toxic positivity makes us unhappy

Let’s be real for a minute. This year has been beyond hard. We couldn’t see it coming, we don’t know where it’s going and many of us are still coming to terms with COVID-normal. When we’re going through hard times, a positive mindset can be very useful. It can remind us to be grateful and to place our hardships into perspective. It can also make us feel materially better to see things through a positive lens. But what happens when it doesn’t work? Why does positivity sometimes rub us the wrong way and what can we do about it? That’s known as toxic positivity – here’s what it is, what it looks like and some ideas for how to overcome it.

What is toxic positivity?

In simple terms, toxic positivity is a rigid, optimistic mindset that is applied to every situation. It’s something you can apply to yourself (at least I’m better off than this person, it could always be worse), it might be through friendly advice (everything will be fine! Keep smiling!) or even through our social media (#positivevibesonly). The problem is when we adopt this rigid mindset we can deny, minimise and invalidate our authentic emotions. In other words, it’s not the positivity that’s the problem – it’s the misplaced optimism.

Read more about the definitions and mental health implications of toxic positivity.

Examples of toxic positivity

There are many ways that toxic positivity can manifest itself, but here’s a few common examples:

Another classic trait of toxic positivity is the search for silver linings. The idea that even the darkest storm cloud is redeemable. Eternal optimism can mask the storm lurking underneath but it does little to change it. It doesn’t make the cloud go away, it only removes our focus from the real problem. Positivity is a powerful tool our brain uses to make bad things bearable. But it can also become a blind spot for processing our negative thoughts and emotions.

To help you recognise when your own or others’ positivity is becoming toxic, here’s three questions you may ask yourself:

  1. Am I using positivity to deflect my negative emotions instead of dealing with them?
  2. Does being positive feel good to me right now?
  3. Will acting more positively have any real effect on this problem?

Strategies for overcoming toxic positivity

Once you’re aware of toxic positivity, it’s easier to overcome it. The key ingredient is authenticity. Acknowledging your emotions, whether positive or negative, and moving through them.

Here’s four strategies that might help you overcome and cut out toxic positivity.

There’s no need to be positive right away

A lot of the time toxic positivity comes from placing an optimistic mindset over a problem far too soon. For example, after losing a job you might realise that the company wasn’t a great fit for you. But before you can see things in such a positive light, you’ll likely feel rejection and sadness first. Give yourself the time to feel all your unique emotions and try to avoid ‘fixing’ your feelings by being positive too soon.

Try the ‘yes, and’ approach

Humans are complex. We rarely see things in black and white, and we don’t feel them that way either. It’s common to feel more than one emotion at a time and it’s good for you to pay mind to them both. Here’s how it works:

I’m feeling sad that I can’t see my friends right now and I’m grateful for their presence in my life.

I’m feeling happy about how my life is going and sometimes bored, like I’m in a rut.

I’m feeling anxious about my presentation and excited to share my ideas.

Just as we shouldn’t let our positivity be all-consuming, it’s dangerous to allow our negativity to take over as well. The ‘yes, and’ approach is about recognising the duality and removing the idea that one situation gets one feeling attached to it.

Take note of when positivity helps you

Positivity is great, in moderation. If a positive mindset in a situation feels right to you, go for it. If you’re not there yet, that’s okay too. Being aware of the situations where positivity made us feel better or worse can help us understand when it’s worth focusing on the positive.

Cut yourself some slack

Negative emotions take a toll on our bodies and minds. The longer we’re feeling negatively, the more tired we become – one simple reason we turn to positivity to break us free from the cycle. Rather than treating your negativity as something you need to ‘get over’, try cutting yourself some slack. Be truthful about your capacity right now and treat yourself to some rest.