Look on the bright side. It could be worse. At least you have your health. Be positive. You’ve probably heard some if not all of these things sometime or another, maybe all in the same day. Maybe you were dealing with trauma. Or your partner upset you. Or you were just having a rough day. Sometimes these positive statements can be helpful to your mood, or simply bland and unimportant. But too much focus on “the bright side” can become harmful - this is what is called “toxic positivity.”
Toxic positivity comes when someone takes the mindset that they - or others - should always be positive, no matter what a person is going through. Negative emotions become something to avoid. Just got robbed? It’s only money, it’s no big deal. Just lost your job? A great one is right around the corner! A relative just died? They’re in a better place now. These statements may sound innocent and uplifting, and sometimes they really do help. But this mindset can lead to shutting down emotions that are natural and real. It’s normal and healthy to sometimes be angry. Or disappointed. Or sad. A person with this outlook might be so intent on saying things like “you need to appreciate what you have” that they invalidate the emotions that others have, causing them to stop talking about what they actually feel. The “positive” person may also say things like these to themselves.
A certain amount of trying to “pull yourself out of it” can be helpful, but if it becomes toxic, it can lead to a spiral of negative emotions. The inability to “stop feeling negative things” can make a person feel ashamed of themselves for their emotions, or see themselves as weak for them, even though they may have been through something which it’s very reasonable to respond to negatively. This shame or feeling of weakness then makes them feel worse about themselves, and extends and deepens their negative emotional state. Or, they may shut down their negative emotions, and lock themselves into denial. Whatever happened, it couldn’t have been that bad, right? This can do a lot of harm.
Having a toxic positivity outlook can lead to a loss of deep social connections with others. If you know telling a person about your bad experiences is going to lead to them telling you to “don’t worry, be happy” and not feeling like they’re acknowledging much less supporting you through things, you’re not likely to keep opening up to them about your problems. These people often end up surrounded by people they only know on a superficial level, because no one feels like they can actually share their real life with them.
When it comes to positivity, I believe the focus should be on more realistic positivity. For example, “you might not be okay now, but you’re going to get through this.” This statement is optimistic but also acknowledges the pain that someone is going through and offers validation as opposed to shutting down their feelings. People need to know that it’s okay to feel bad feelings. Survivors of assault should never be told how “lucky” they are that it wasn’t worse. Sometimes we need to say “this isn’t fair. This sucks” and be allowed the freedom to say that without someone telling us to “be more positive and look on the brightside.”
Some days we just need to cry, and let it out. Maybe we need to scream and rant about how what we’ve been through isn’t fair. This is a reality because otherwise we bottle things up and this tends to lead to an explosion. Positivity, like a lot of other things, requires balance. An acknowledgement that you’re allowed to feel bad emotions, but you need to take steps to not get stuck there. No one should be expected to heal and feel better instantly. Negative emotions are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of humanity.
Some of the statements that are the best examples of toxic positivity are ones that leave the least room for potential bad emotions or outcomes. For instance, you may have heard “You can do anything you put your mind to.” This is especially told to children. If you give a bit of thought to it, it isn’t always true. No matter how hard you try, some things may be physically impossible, such as flying like a bird, without the aid of any equipment. Other things may be possible for some people but not possible for others. That’s okay. And there needs to be room for it to be okay, so that people don’t feel like it’s a failing of their personal worth that they couldn’t achieve what they wanted.
Instead of using blindly, sometimes toxically positive statements, we should try to use open and supportive statements:
Being positive isn’t a bad thing in itself. The problem comes when positivity becomes more important than acknowledging reality. Sometimes things are good, and we can celebrate and enjoy that. But sometimes they aren’t good. That’s real, and valid, and a part of life. Toxic positivity causes people to invalidate and shut down connections with others who are trying to get support or just get someone to listen to them so they feel less alone. It also causes people to ignore their pain, or feel something is wrong with them for normal and healthy responses to hardships. An obsessively positive lifestyle makes it difficult to have authentic and honest relationships, lending itself to instead only carrying on shallow, unfulfilling ones. Balance is a an important part of life, and is good for your mental health. Be positive if it helps you, but leave room for feeling anger, sadness, disappointment and other negative emotions. And let others around you feel those things and know that you’ll be there for them and help them through. Supporting people so that you all can heal and grow stronger together is far more important and positive than any little slogan could be.