FYI, Being "Too Positive" Is An Actual Thing! It's Called Toxic Positivity, And It Seriously Compromises Our Well-Being
If you're guilty of the emotional crime, worry not. We all have been at some point, but here's a great lesson on how to redeem ourselves—and how to better use positivity to our advantage
It's not every day that you pair the words "toxic" and "positivity." It sounds like an oxymoron, but in psychology, toxic positivity isn't just a poetic turn of phrase, but a term that encapsulates a very specific phenomenon that we've all seen, heard, and felt in recent months, no thanks to (you guessed it) the pandemic.
Now if you've seen the #ToxicPositivity hashtag making rounds on social media or seen post of friends decrying it, here's a great chance to educate yourself about what it really means. We spoke to Margaret U. Alvarez, a psychologist and dean of graduate studies programs at Silliman University, who gave us the lowdown on the now ubiquitous term.
"Toxic positivity is believing that one should always be positive no matter the circumstances or no matter how difficult things (life) might be," she begins.
"Toxic positivity can be damaging (self-destructive) because it involves a denial of negative emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety," she continues.
Taking these things together, this tells us that the "toxic" in toxic positivity doesn't imply that optimism, choosing to make the best out of an awful situation, and believing things will be alright in the end are inherently bad. Optimism and positivity are definitely essential to making it out of the pandemic emotionally and psychological intact.
So what makes positivity so toxic, then?
Positivity sours when we force the idea that we should not experience feelings like loneliness, disconnection, nervousness, worry, panic and all the other tough emotions being exposed to stressful situations—like dealing with the COVID crisis—brings about. It becomes toxic when we deny ourselves these experiences, because in reality, both the "good" and "bad" emotions are part and parcel of the human condition. Being happy and able to cope with challenges today, then not doing so great tomorrow and feeling a little down make you a whole person; demanding from yourself and from others that only positive emotions should be felt is unnatural, unhealthy, and downright corrodes our emotional and psychological well-being.
You might be thinking now that, well, toxic positivity is just you trying not to focus on stress. It's you wanting to move forward from a stressful situation ASAP, so why is there a need to experience difficult emotions at all?
"Defensive strategies to any anxiety-provoking situation (e.g., pandemic) serve a purpose and are actually good for everyone, but as temporary ways to address these situations. It gives an individual time to calm down and perhaps, once relaxed, the person can focus on finding solutions to problems," Margaret explains.
"I am of the opinion that defensive maneuvers such as toxic positivity (or denial) serve a purpose. Thus, it may be acceptable as an initial reaction," she adds.
Think of it this way.
When you're presented with a stressful situation, say, the potential of losing a job because of pandemic-related issues, your initial emotional responses might be to panic, to feel anxious, to be angry, to get frustrated. How would you feel if, minutes upon hearing the news and you sharing it with loved ones, the only reactions you get are along the lines of, "Be positive, everything happens for a reason," or, "A good cry is all you need," or "Kayang-kaya mo 'yan!"
Yup. We'd be pretty ticked off, too.
Why statements like that are so annoying and so damaging is because you're essentially not allowed to accept the situation as it is first, before finding enough balance and calmness to figure out a plan for yourself. You are being demanded to skip a crucial step in processing stressful situations—accepting and owning what's in front of you—before you start recovery.
You wouldn't ask someone with a broken leg to forego weeks of bed rest before beginning physical therapy, so why force someone under psychological distress to skip a step critical to them feeling better?
If you've ever felt worse after someone has tried to "comfort" or "advise" you after a bad day or a truly terrible experience but couldn't figure out why, it might be because you were subjected to their toxic positivity.
On the other hand, you yourself might have been fostering toxic positivity without you realizing, so here's an opportunity to be more mindful of your words. Aside from the statements mentioned above, toxic positivity crops up in our day to day conversations in the forms of these statements and other similar expressions:
- "That's nothing coffee/a drink can't fix. Let's just drink to that."
- "Don't worry too much, God will provide."
- "Wake up with a smile on your face instead."
- "Be grateful for what you have/Others have it worse."
- "Keep a positive mindset!"
- "Good vibes only."
- "Malalampasan mo din 'yan."
- "It's a blessing in disguise."
- "Try to look for the silver lining."
It's important to clarify, however, that there are no "specific" statements that point to toxic positivity. It's how you use these statements that matter, and perhaps also the timing of their usage.
There's nothing wrong with reminding loved ones that better days are ahead. We must all remain hopeful for brighter tomorrows, especially during this time, after all.
Instead, what we should be conscious of is if we are trying to stop people from experiencing reactions like grief, sadness, fear and other emotions that are totally normal responses to stressful situations and getting them to "replace" these "negative" emotions with positivity—toxic positivity, to be specific.
Margaret offers an alternative, toxic positivity-free way to deal with a friend or family member confiding in us about their experiences.
"You could first assure individuals that their reactions are normal responses... Essentially we all need a bit of time and patience to get past negative emotions," she says.
"First, give the assurance. Have individuals come to an acceptance of their feelings and acknowledge their uncertainty, tell them it's okay not to be okay, and encourage them to seek others out and continue the connections and maintain relationships (support systems) via technology. Always, however, they must be reminded to be patient and kind to themselves; it's never a good thing to take out your frustrations on yourself. Then, help them find healthy outlets," she suggests.
More or less, you'll be able to tell when your friend, family, or colleague has calmed down enough to be able to start the process of moving forward.
They'll be less focused on their initial reactions and they'll be more open to thinking of "Okay, what now? What's next?" Maybe, they could ask for your advice, too. (Extra tip: Unsolicited advice is a thing, too. Abstain from advice-giving unless it's explicitly asked for).
When they've reached this stage, feel free to redirect them to more positive thinking. They'll be more receptive to it, and they'll have you as great company during the road to healing, too.
In the end, it's incredibly important for both our physical and mental health for us to feel all our emotions. We risk exacerbating our pain if we don't.
"[Your emotions] will eat you up. And eventually, your body complains and you get physically sick and end up at the hospital simply because you could not address a psychological issue. If you don't address a psychological concern, you literally swallow it. So where do you think it goes?" Margaret poses.
Now that you're armed with this knowledge on toxic positivity and healthier alternatives to staying optimistic, we hope you face the days ahead feeling a lot better!
Opening images from Pexels and Unsplash