Hi Moms! Thank you for joining me today.
Today I wanted to talk about Toxic Positivity. Yes! It’s a thing! I’ve known it was a thing for a long time, I just didn’t know it had a name. I would always try to define it to myself or to my friends or to my husband, but I just couldn’t find the words to explain this thing that bothered me so much. It’s like I could never find the words to express how I was feeling around certain people, and now I have found the name of it: toxic positivity. Ever since I’ve learned the word for it, I have been thinking about it non-stop and watching for it and have even discovered a little bit of it in myself when I’m parenting my children, or talking to myself in my own head. So let me explain.
We’ve all had that friend or partner who seemingly was above it all, just always going with the flow and optimistic no matter what life threw at them. Maybe we’ve even been in that overly-positive person in other’s lives sometimes. And we might even see it with how we talk to ourself. However, too much positivity can actually result in a lack of support, or not giving other people what they need in that moment.
Have you ever heard statements like, “Well, everything happens for a reason” or “Just look on the bright side” or “You know, It could be worse.” How does that make you feel when you are deep in the abyss of negativity and life seems too tough to handle in that moment, all you want to do is talk about your feelings and someone comes back at you with “just stay positive.” That is not always what we want to hear when we’re going through a hard time, and it can actually be a little bit damaging which we will talk about in a minute.
I have been thinking about writing this podcast for a long time. I wanted my listeners to be aware of what it is, mainly because of how we talk to our children. And so, because I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’ve been trying to look for it in myself and others, I realized that I have to bite my tongue sometimes. I have to change my words with my kids.
My daughter just tried out for the middle school dance team and she didn’t make it and she was really upset. And all I wanted to do was help her negative emotions go away. So I kept thinking of saying things like, “Well, this is probably maybe a good thing because now you can try out for the volleyball team,” or “Maybe you weren’t supposed to get on the team for some reason,” or “Well, now you can concentrate on school which has been a little bit much because we’re getting used to middle school.” And I realized in that moment when she was super sad, all of those things that I wanted to say, that I’ve probably said so much in the past to all of my children, were not the right things for her to hear in that moment. She didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to change how she was feeling right then and I needed to get comfortable helping her sit with her negative emotion. So I just hugged her really tight and I just kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. This is so disappointing. Of course you’re sad.” And tried to just jump in the trench with her. And I had to keep reminding myself to not say the things that I wanted to say to try to make it better.
I found a couple of definitions of toxic positivity and what it specifically is. This first one is from verywellmind.com. They define it as, “the belief that no matter how dire or difficult the situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.” And here’s a different definition from thepsychologygroup.com. They define toxic positivity as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. The exact origins of this phrase, toxic positivity, are unclear, but to sum it up is a general sense of, ‘Good vibes only’.
It’s basically an obsession with positive thinking where one feels like there is no room for negative emotion. To just brush whatever is ailing you under the rug and move on with a positive outlook. Never quite dealing with any deep emotions.
Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.
And like I mentioned, in some cases, we might even be doing this to ourself! For example, a person may try to appear happy all the time by presenting everything in a positive light.
There is so much out there about the value of positive thinking, and I believe it! I even did an episode on “Change start with your thoughts.” I truly believe this can be a game changer. This figuring out your thoughts and changing them and that helps change your feelings. There is so much evidence to show that positive thinking can greatly improve one’s mental health
That’s all well and good. And like I said, I believe this is so powerful, and it’s a great thing to strive for. But sometimes the unexpected happens, like a huge global pandemic, and any other types of unforeseen challenges: not making the dance team, going through a separation, not being able to get pregnant after trying for so long. It is sometimes just important to embrace the pain and work through those emotions, rather than trying to suppress them or float above them all, like sometimes toxic positivity is telling us to do.
So toxic positivity is the belief that positive thinking is the only solution to life’s problems, demanding that a person avoid negative thinking or expressing negative emotions at all costs. We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental well-being. It is. The problem is that life isn’t always positive. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, are important and need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly
So now that I’ve explained it a bit, can you think of someone in your life who has been toxically positive? Maybe you wanted a safe place to share some deep, dark negative thoughts, just to get it off your chest to try to process through it, hoping for an empathetic listening ear? Only to be met with words that make you feel like you are an awful shameful person for feeling the way you do? That maybe something is wrong with you and you shouldn’t be thinking or feeling this way?
Have you ever tried to complain about someone to someone else? Maybe this someone really hurt your feelings with something they said and you just wanted to talk about it with your friend. And have you ever had that friend come back to you and kind of surprise you with a, “You really probably don’t know exactly where they were coming from when they said that,” and really just trying to make you look on the bright side, when you really just want to complain about how someone hurt your feelings? Sometimes we just want someone to jump in the trenches with us. That’s what I like to call it.
And our kids want this too. When they’re talking to you about their problems, they usually don’t want you to try to fix it. They want to know that these emotions they’re having are normal and that you understand and that you would be upset if you were in their position too. Because they will change their thinking around, they just need some time to process through the negative emotion first. So we need to get really really comfortable with negative emotion, somehow. And I believe that is the best way to avoid toxic positivity.
We as humans feel a wide range of emotions, each of which is very important to our well-being. Have you ever thought of it that way–that emotions are important to our well-being? I’m teaching a class right now to a group of young women. It’s all about how to be mentally healthy. I am spending an entire class one week on our emotions. When we have an emotion, it’s important to identify it, feel it, like really feel it, try to figure out what message it’s sending to you. What is it you need to pay attention to from that particular emotion? Our emotions are what makes us human and special. And we have so many of them. Anxiety, for example, may alert a person to a dangerous situation, while anger is a normal response to injustice or mistreatment or when your personal boundaries have been disrespected. And sadness may signal many things that we need to pay attention to. If we are met with toxic positivity, while talking through these things, whether from someone else or from our own selves, we are not going to learn the things we need to and we are going to end up a lot worse off by stuffing our emotions down.
Failing to talk about our emotions will not make them go away, although toxically positive people are convinced otherwise. We need help to deal with our emotions. Even simply vocalizing emotions may make them feel less powerful which can help a person feel less “trapped” by them.
Some research shows that talking about emotions, including negative emotions, may even help the brain better process feelings. An older study found that labeling and talking about emotions reduced the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions. So this is basically saying that talking about feelings may make them feel less overwhelming.
We need to understand and we need to help our child understand that it’s okay to not feel okay. We can’t just choose only the emotions we want to have. It simply doesn’t work that way. Encouraging someone to express only positive emotions can stifle their ability to communicate and make them feel bad about themself for having negative emotions. We don’t want to do this. We don’t want to do this to ourselves or to our child or to our partner. And we probably don’t even want to be around this, if we have a friend that is doing this to us.
It can actually cause emotional harm to people who are going through difficult times.
I widdled it down to the 4 main ways toxic positivity can cause harm.
First, it can be very shaming. When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, and that they’re okay for feeling that way, they need to be able to find relief and love in their friends and family. Toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable and invalid.
Second, it causes guilt. It sends a message that if you aren’t finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, that you are doing something wrong.
Third, it avoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity is basically an avoidance mechanism. When people engage in this type of behavior, it allows them to avoid emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable.
And finally, it prevents growth. It allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.
The “positive vibes only” mantra can be particularly grating during times of intense personal distress. When people are coping with intense situations, being told that they need to look on the bright side can seem downright cruel.
It is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. But people going through trauma don’t need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not handling the situation and their emotions in a more positive way.
I would like to challenge all of us to be aware of this, and a little bit more careful, especially when talking to our children. As you listen to your child talk about their day and share their problems with you, try to make sure you don’t express yourself with toxic positivity. Just listen to them. Help them put a name to their emotions. Help them know that what they’re feeling is normal. One of my favorite phrases to use when I’m not sure what to say is, “That makes sense why you would feel that way.”
The last thing they need is for you to tell them what they should be thinking or that they shouldn’t be so negative. We are not trying to do any harm by saying these things, in fact we are trying to help. But it actually doesn’t help. It just makes them feel some of those things that we talked about, if not all of them. And there is no better way to invite your child not to open up to you again. So, if you want to keep the lines of communication flowing, do what I call “jumping in the trenches with them.” Is your daughter really mad at her best friend? Jump in there with her. Have her tell you all the things that her friend did to make her so mad and validate, validate, validate. Just be there for her. Even if you know that the best way she can get over a tough situation is by having a better, more positive outlook, she really doesn’t want to hear it in that moment.
You might be surprised how quickly your child can process through their negative emotion once they are able to just tell you about it. My daughter, when she didn’t make the dance team, declared that she was never going to dance again and that dancing was stupid. And after listening to her, and all that she wanted to say, and letting her cry whenever she wanted to while I just hugged her, sure enough she was dancing by the end of the night and she actually seemed just fine.
I, too, am still learning this whole process, but I have noticed that it is powerful, that when we don’t try to fix people’s problems and try to get them out of their negative emotion as fast as possible, it’s actually so much better in the end.
Let’s try to really allow people to express themselves; to tell you how they’re feeling and to explain that difficult situation that they’re in. And also, be sure not to be too toxically positive to yourself either. Instead of trying to avoid your difficult emotions, give yourself permission to feel them. These feelings are real, valid, and important.
So when you are going through something hard, think about ways to give voice to your emotions in a way that is productive. Maybe write in a journal or talk to a friend. Just putting what you are feeling into words, somehow, can help lower the intensity of those negative emotions.
Toxic positivity is often subtle, and it’s not meant to be mean. And we’ve all probably said things like this at one point or another. By learning to recognize it, you’ll be better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and give more authentic support when you are going through something that isn’t easy.
Start noticing toxic statements and strive to let yourself and others feel their emotions, both the positive and the negative.
And remember: Being human is not about feeling happy all the time; it’s about feeling everything.
Thanks for joining me today and I’ll talk to you next time!