There's no denying the power of positive thinking. Especially as we attempt to cope with yet another stressful wave of the pandemic, focusing on positivity can be helpful in providing perspective. However, when we attempt to wallpaper over our legitimate fears and anxieties with positivity instead of processing and dealing with these darker emotions, things can turn toxic quickly. Whether it's that one coworker constantly telling you everything is going to be fine or the slew of multicolor self-care graphics on your timeline, shallow attempts to magically extinguish negative feelings are neither effective nor ideal for your mental health.
So then, if toxic positivity isn't the answer, what coping mechanisms actually work? And how do you keep yourself from falling into the common quicksand traps of toxic positivity? To find out, we spoke to mental health experts about healthier alternatives to toxic positivity. These strategies can help you feel better mentally, provide some relief from COVID-related grief and stress, and keep you from feeling misunderstood the next time your worries are dismissed with an offhanded "it's all going to be fine, don't worry."
What Does Toxic Positivity Really Mean?
Toxic positivity is best described as "the idea that authentic or genuine negative emotions should be bypassed in favor of positive thinking," according to Dr. Allison Forti, an assistant professor in the department of counseling at Wake Forest University. These thought patterns often develop with good intentions, as many of us have been taught not to dwell on negative emotions, but they are still characterized by invalidations and overgeneralizations that Dr. Forti said do not properly contextualize a person's entire life situation or their full range of emotions. Some common examples of toxic positivity include phrases like "good vibes only" or "see the good in everything," which, though well-meaning, aren't the most helpful messages for people dealing with pain and anxiety, from the pandemic or otherwise. If you take a step back, it can be easier to see how phrases like these minimize and dismiss real painful emotions people are experiencing, which can make them feel even more isolated in those feelings.
Why Doesn't Toxic Positivity Work?
Positive thinking isn't inherently a bad thing, but when it's used as a way to dismiss very real emotions, it becomes problematic. "There is no need to sugarcoat the facts," said Kimberly King, an educator, author, and crisis counselor with The Rowan Center. "Toxic positivity takes away from the trauma and real pain many people have been through," she explained. This is especially true during the pandemic, in which so many are experiencing heightened amounts of grief and worry. "Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, dismiss grief, and make people feel pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling with overwhelming emotions."
Suppressing negative feelings can have a variety of detrimental effects on one's lifestyle as well, said Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author. "When a person feels angry, stressed, negative, sad, or irritable, ignoring those feelings to 'put on a happy face' can lead to additional stress, anger, irritability, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, alcohol abuse, or other addictive patterns," she said. Ultimately, toxic positivity is a defense mechanism that can hurt more than it helps.
What Are Some Better Alternatives to Toxic Positivity?
Instead of avoiding or covering up difficult emotions, experts say the best thing to do is embrace them and try to work through them. One way to do this is to remind yourself that not all stress is inherently bad, suggested Aisha R. Shabazz, a social worker and therapist. "Because of the pandemic, there is a significant amount of uncertainty and stress that has been introduced into our lives, and this uncertainty is extremely uncomfortable," Shabazz said. "Accepting life as a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant moments can help us maintain more realistic expectations." Expecting everything to be positive at all times is unrealistic.
Fortunately, King said there are additional healthy ways to stay positive while still processing the full spectrum of your emotions. "You can do this by having a family meeting to check in and communicate," she said. "Review lessons learned, things that made the family strong." You can even make a list of specific things you or your family are grateful for. King said practicing gratitude and focusing on communication are smart ways to shift away from toxic positivity and toward positive practices that aren't so harmful.
Another good way to handle fluctuating emotions is to view your feelings as neutral instead of positive or negative. "The more you get into the habit of not judging your emotions as 'good' or 'bad,' the more you learn to see your emotions as important messengers of what you need or don't need," Dr. Manly said. For example, if you're feeling upset or stressed, instead of judging yourself for those emotions, you can look at them as cues that tell you that you need to take a bath, spend time with one of your hobbies, call a friend, go to the gym, or cook a new recipe. That way, instead of getting bogged down by "bad" feelings, you can use them as catalysts for practices that you know make you feel positive emotions. "When we pause to slow down, we're far more likely to choose healthy coping mechanisms rather than the self-destructive ones," Dr. Manly said.
If it's the people around you who are the ones perpetuating toxic positivity, Dr. Forti suggests trying to share your acceptance of negative feelings. "Someone who frequently engages in toxic positivity may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable when negative emotions are accessed," she said. "Let the person know you think feeling mad or sad is OK, that feeling and acknowledging the negative stuff makes them human and more fully connected to themselves and others." Once we can accept that it's OK not to be positive 100 percent of the time, we can become smarter about how we cope and learn to take care of all our emotions.