Healthy Mind

7 Signs Your Can-Do Attitude Is Actually ‘Toxic Positivity’ in Disguise

Photo: Getty Images/Justin Case
Toxic positivity can be harmful to your body and your mind. Think of it as the act of creating a narrative that's all about feeling good and looking on the bright side while hiding your negative emotions in a way that's not reasonable, not natural, or not mentally healthy. But for people with a sunny disposition, it may hard to see if your positivity is something else in disguise.

Well, kind of hard. Writing for The Psychology Group, Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD, help identify how toxic positivity festers. Now, to be clear, toxic positivity isn't as simple as just being pleasant. They define toxic positivity as an "excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations," noting further that "toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience."

To wit, you're a person. You're not a millennial pink "Good Vibes Only" throw pillow. Sometimes things are terrible and it's more effective to allow yourself or your loved ones to speak your truth. If you bottle things up, well, it can cause real stress on the body and the mind. And if you tell your friend that "everything happens for a reason" when some moron in a Hummer steamrolled their corgi, Waffles, you're going to get hit upside the head.

So, how do you spot the differences between one and the other? Below, seven signs of toxic positivity:

The Telltale Signs of Toxic Positivity

  1. Hiding or masking your true feelings
  2. Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing or dismissing emotion(s)
  3. Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
  4. Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
  5. Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience
  6. Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
  7. Brushing off things that are bothering you with a “It is what it is”

If you find yourself guilty of any of these (particularly 4-6) it's really time to check yourself. Keeping a façade of "Everything is Awesome!" is going to make it all the more difficult to connect with people. By not showing your own emotions, you're acquainting people with a persona. Likewise, others will take your quote-throwing cardboard, and will be turned off by your lack of empathy.

Looking on the bright side isn't a fatal flaw. The world is full of optimists and pessimists, a delicate balance of light and dark. What experts ask is that when you're looking for the silver lining, acknowledge that the clouds actually exist. Also, stop using that silver lining line, rebrand with something like, "I see you and I'm here for you."

Ultimately, the best way to spread positivity is by allowing people—and yourself—a certain amount of compassion and catharsis.

So, how specifically do you stop toxic positivity from seeping into your life? For starters, you can strive to exhibit a full range of emotions in a healthy manner. Below, experts provide three tips to do just that:

How To Avoid Toxic Positivity

1. Model your full slate of emotions around your loved ones

Being a good model of emotional intelligence can yield positive results, and a key to cultivating emotional intelligence involves expressing your true emotions in a way that's natural and honest. In practice, this can be difficult with people you don't know well, but you can start by modeling with friends and family, or whomever you can be vulnerable with.

And if there aren't people in your life with whom you feel you can be vulnerable, it's still possible to be honest about your emotions. Just lead by example. "Toxic positivity can grab hold in communities, based on what we feel like is acceptable," says Amanda White, LPC, licensed therapist and founder of Therapy for Women Center. "If I don't show that I'm upset about something, then friends and family don't, and it can spread that way." By modeling your genuine emotions, you help to break that pattern.

2. Don't be afraid to say you’re not okay

Elyse Fox, activist and founder of Sad Girls Club, a nonprofit focused on providing mental-wellness resources and community for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) encourages people in her network to experience and express all their feelings, including negative emotions like anger and grief. "You have to experience all the emotions that are underneath to heal," Fox says. "You can't just put on a mask."

"You have to experience all the emotions that are underneath to heal. You can't just put on a mask." —Elyse Fox, Sad Girls Club founder

"We're in a state now where we still don't know what's going on. We don't know what's happening in the next month," Fox says, adding that it's okay to feel insecure or unsure about the future. "We really encourage our community to have these real conversations and to speak about the nitty-gritty nuances of their mental health."

3. Reframe the way you think about negative emotions

In fact, you don’t even have to refer to them as "negative" emotions at all! Feelings of sadness and anger aren't inherently negative; they're just responses to what's happening, says Jasmine Marie, a breathwork practitioner and founder of Black Girls Breathing. When those feelings arise, use them as indicators: Think, "'What do I need to pay attention to?' and 'What do I need to give myself compassion on?’" Marie says.

And as you're removing the negative associations you have with your feelings, remind yourself that emotions are intertwined and complex. You're allowed to have feelings in multitudes, and even if you're experiencing a messy combination of happiness and guilt, or misery and excitement, or all of the above, acknowledge it and model it for others.

"We're not a monolith," says Marie. "You can be grateful you have a job but also understand that it's taxing you at this time." And if you're feeling it inside, then try to explain it to others. By doing so, Marie says, you'll help stop the spread of toxic positivity: "If you're saying it, then others will give themselves permission to say, 'There's nothing's wrong with me if I'm experiencing that as well.’"

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