Most of us have met people whose typical response when we tell them about our problems is something along the lines of… “Chin up!” or “It’ll all be okay, just look at the bright side.” or “Well, at least…” (“at least” is one of my least favorite phrases someone can say when I’m talking about my problems or my feelings). If you’re like me, these types of responses can be so frustrating. It leaves me thinking “Do you even care about anything I just told you?”
What do those responses all have in common? What do they sound like? Toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is a term that has been gaining in popularity in recent years, and more and more people are starting to become aware of it and recognizing it. So what is toxic positivity and how is it different than just positivity?
Toxic positivity is characterized by being positive in an emotionally unhealthy way. It’s positivity to the point of causing emotional damage. Usually it takes form in ignoring or suppressing emotions, downplaying or diminishing problems and struggles, and using positivity as a means to avoid. And it’s not the same as being positive or being optimistic. You’ll notice that it’s toxic because it feels like the person is pressuring you to take on the same positivity and set your real feelings aside.
Here’s an example of what an encounter with toxic positivity might look like. Let’s say you’ve been working so hard on a project at work, dedicating months of your time and energy into it, and you’ve just found out that it’s being discarded by the higher-ups. You’re outraged, hurt, confused and upset. You go to a colleague who works on another project because you need someone to talk to. As you’re trying to process what you’re feeling and vent about your frustrations, your colleague responds by saying, “Don’t get mad! It’s not worth it to be mad. Just try to look on the bright side. You still have a job!”
How do you imagine you’d feel in a situation like this, receiving that response? Probably even more outraged, hurt, confused and upset, right? All you want to do is talk about what happened and have someone lend you their ear so you can vent. And their response is to tell you not to be mad and to cheer up. It’s pretty invalidating.
The problem with toxic positivity, and thus why it’s toxic, is that it IS invalidating. It leaves no room for feelings other than happiness. Anything that’s outside the box of ‘happy’ and ‘cheerful’ is not allowed. You’re not allowed to be mad. Sadness? Nope, no room for that here. Grief? Sorry, that’s not welcomed here. Just “good vibes only.”
So why do some people meet our problems and struggles with this toxic form of positivity? Well, the answer is likely that they meet their own problems and struggles with it, too. People who use toxic positivity as a means to avoid do not give themselves the opportunity to sit with their own feelings. They are not comfortable with the pain, the sorrow, the anger, the loss. So they push it away and shove it down and use a little saying like “Keep calm and carry on” to mask what they’re really feeling. People who are unwilling to let themselves feel their feelings, and who are not comfortable with their own emotions, are not going to be willing to let other talk about or express emotions other than happiness.
If you’ve read any of my other blog posts or have any prior knowledge of emotional health and emotional intelligence, you’ll already know why it’s so important for us to be able and willing to talk about our emotions. Just because we don’t acknowledge them, or just because we say “Everything will be fine!” does not mean those feelings go away. Ignoring our emotions is never the answer.
Unfortunately, people who are not comfortable with their emotions will not be comfortable with other people’s emotions. Even more unfortunately, these people might be your family, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners. We obviously can’t force people to drop their toxic positivity routine and start being emotionally intelligent people. It’s not our responsibility to change other people. So, instead, the challenge is choosing not to surround yourself with people who don’t give you space to sit with your feelings and express your emotions. The challenge is also to surround yourself with people who are willing to go there, willing to see and know you, because they also want to be seen and known.
Look for the people whose response when you share your struggles and pain is, “I hear you. That’s so painful.” Look for the people who really listen, who accept you and all of your emotions no matter how big or how uncomfortable it might get. Those are people of substance and those are people who will be there for you when you really can’t do life alone.