There’s a difference between having a generally optimistic point of view — and suffering from toxic positivity. This recently-trendy term refers to a person who lives by the idea that everyone should be happy, all the time, regardless of how stressed they or someone else may be about a current situation, explains psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. In many ways, it’s a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to life that often prevents you from accepting how you really feel — and honoring the feelings of others.
As you can imagine, this can be incredibly harmful because when we repress our emotions, it’s like holding a beach ball underwater in a pool: the ball is going to pop up somewhere else, says Natalie Underdown, Ph.D., an executive coach and organizational psychologist for The Nu Company. “Our emotions are going to surface eventually. Acknowledging them and tuning into the wisdom they hold is the fastest way to move through them and get to a genuine state of positivity,” she explains.
So how can we tune in to realism instead of a fantasy world? These tips will get you started:
Rather than telling yourself, everything is okay when it isn’t, it is helpful to check in with yourself regularly, says author and psychotherapist Dr. Deb Courtney. This will help you notice both when you may be using positivity to avoid your own emotion and use it to minimize a loved one’s experience. To get your mind moving in the right direction, she recommends pausing and asking yourself these questions:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What is my comfort level at holding space for all of my emotions?
- What is my comfort level at witnessing my loved one in emotional pain?
- What can I do to validate my experience right now?
- What can I do to validate my loved one’s experience right now?
Remember, truth is kinder.
When your best friend reaches out to you because she is battling imposter syndrome at work, it’s not exactly helpful to say, ‘Don’t worry. You’re great!’ Instead, what’s kinder and healthier is acknowledging the worry, stress and frustration she’s expressing, says author and psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, MD. Start by asking them what they need. “Positivity is for oneself, not to insist another person be positive,” she continues. “We, ourselves, can exude a positive attitude and demeanor when caring and interacting with others. That is when positivity is not toxic.”
Dr. Courtney provides some examples of toxic positivity replies:
- Replace “You will get through this” with “This sounds really painful.”
- Replace “They are in a better place” with “You must really miss them.”
- Replace “You are such a strong person” with “Letting yourself feel all of your emotions takes courage.”
- Replace “Everything happens for a reason” with “It’s ok for you to not know how to make sense of this right now.”
Focus on compassionately listening more and trying to fix it less.
When you or someone you care about is going through a challenging life experience, the tendency may be to want to take the pain away. However, Dr. Courtney says it’s better to recognize when this impulse creeps in and remind yourself that the more loving thing to do for both yourself and others is to hold space for the emotional pain simply. “Listen to yourself and let yourself cry; listen to your loved ones and let them cry,” she continues. “Fight the urge to say things to ‘make it better.’ Remember, non-judgmentally witnessing one’s path (your own path included) is the most loving gift you can give.”
Value and accept all emotions, good and bad.
As Dr. Thomas puts it, toxic positivity rightfully has that name because it blocks you from being in touch with your entire range of emotions. As a result, you begin to operate as a robot — not as a human. Being constantly cheery can cause you to misread, misinterpret, misunderstand, and have difficulty relating and connecting to people who aren’t on your same level.
To cut this out, welcome, honor and accept everything you feel, from sadness and joy to annoyance and fear. “It is unnatural and unhealthy to shut down emotions just because they may be upsetting or uncomfortable,” she continues. “In fact, it is important to learn to accept what feelings are normal to have about unhappy or stressful situations and to allow yourself and others to have reactions and emotions even if they are the unhappy ones.”
Try to stay in the present moment.
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One of the reasons people adopt a toxic positivity mindset is because they’re constantly thinking about tomorrow. And when we worry about what’s ahead, it can create anxiety. To ease those emotions, try your best to stay in the moment, no matter what’s happening, recommends certified life coach Adam Jablin. “Most people struggle with this and use toxic positivity to try to battle their fears! If you can’t look at the causes and conditions of what makes you afraid, you’re living in the past or the future,” he continues. “But, we can be present. In the now, we can see things clearly, as they are. Then we can make an encouraging decision with a clear mind and optimism.”
If you are dealing with depression and need help, you can call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-NAMI.