Healthy Mind

Toxic Positivity Is Dangerous for Mental Health—Here Are 3 Strategies That’ll End It for Good

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Justin Case
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I love a good gratitude list, but sometimes it’s freeing to simply admit that you’re going through it. That’s especially important to remember as we rounding the last corner on a pretty objectively difficult year, because invoking toxic positivity can be so damaging to a person’s mental wellness.

If you’re not familiar with the term, let me back up and explain: Think of toxic positivity as the millennial pink mug that screams GOOD VIBES ONLY and ignores all the rest the vibes that might not be good, per se, but are authentically swirling in your own personal universe. In a recent Well+Good TALKS focused on mental-health authenticity, a panel of mental-health experts and practitioners framed toxic positivity as the act of creating a narrative that’s all about feeling good and looking on the bright side, but hiding your negative emotions in a way that’s not A) plausible, B) natural, or C) mentally healthy.

Panelist Amanda White, LPC, licensed therapist and founder of Therapy for Women Center, gave an example of what toxic positivity might look like in practice. Say you cry in front of someone, or show an emotion that isn’t positive. A person who leans on toxic positivity will feel uncomfortable and may try to tell you to just be grateful for what you have. “That just kind of washes over and negates how you’re actually feeling,” White said.

Toxic positivity can also take the form of something you inflict on yourself; perhaps you’re going through a heinous breakup and spend all your time and energy trying to feel good and smile through it. This doesn’t allow you to actually go through it by hurting and then processing before then working to heal.

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

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,” White said. “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

Panelist 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 said. “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 said, 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, Jasmine Marie, a breathwork practitioner and founder of Black Girls Breathing said as panelist at the TALKS. 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 said.

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,” said 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 said, 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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