You’re Going to be Fine—Toxic Positivity
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How often have we faced a crisis, whether it be an illness, a romantic breakup, or a job loss, only to feel frustrated by our friends and family telling us that we're going to be fine, look on the bright side, or everything happens for a reason? Or, how often have we tried to talk ourselves out of feeling sad, angry, worried, or scared? The truth is that it is very common that loved ones do try to talk us out of our genuine feelings; additionally, we also try to push down how we really feel. When others try to minimize, deny, or even reprimand us for expressing negative emotions, or we try to do the same to ourselves, it is toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is getting increasing attention from health professionals as research and experience with patients show that toxic positivity is very detrimental to people's health and wellbeing. Toxic positivity comes in two forms: others try to bring us to a happy or optimistic state; we try to talk ourselves out of our negative feelings.
While it is not necessarily wrong to look on the bright side or count one's blessings in the face of a personal crisis such as a job loss or death of a loved one, it can become toxic if we do it to the extent where we are drowning out our authentic emotions surrounding the loss. So-called negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, and resentment are natural human emotions and arise whether we want them to or not. If we try to avoid or run from emotions such as fear or anger, more profound, darker problems can arise, like shame. Instead of feeling okay about feeling anger, fear, or jealousy by trying to deny those feelings, we can develop a sense of shame for having them—for being human. "It's important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalizing them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, healthy, and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth." (Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes by Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD, the psychologygroup.com) Another area where toxic positivity can be life damaging is with our relationships. "Every relationship has challenges. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive. This approach can destroy communication and the ability to solve relationship problems." (What to Know about Toxic Positivity by Zawn Villines, medically reviewed by Johnson, PsyD, March 30, 2021, medicalnewstoday.com) When your life goes sideways, and you face a time of hardship, try not to push down your feelings. Remind yourself that it's natural and normal and actually healthy to feel fear, anger, resentment, doubt, heartbreak, or sadness. Those feelings are just part of being human, and experiencing them will not preclude you from feeling joy, love, bravery, or optimism as those are also part of being human. If you should catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of how you genuinely feel, a good thing to do is to find a quiet place and sit with your feelings without any judgment or self-talk. Simply feel and observe.
A note to all friends, coworkers, or family members who are always trying to talk us out of our feelings of anguish or upset: what you are doing is highly toxic and unhealthy to people. Next time a person comes to you with a problem or a crisis, do not tell them they are going to be fine. "Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling." Additionally, "People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, deterring them from seeking help." (What to Know about Toxic Positivity by Zawn Villines, medically reviewed by Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD, March 30, 2021, medicalnews.com) Next time someone shares their fear, worry, or sadness with you, do not try to cheer them up. Instead, the very best thing to do is to listen to them and validate their feelings. It's important to understand that people can feel a wide range of feelings at any moment or circumstance. Instead of roaring in with heaps of optimism, listen and make them feel cared for and heard. A person can feel both anger towards being rejected and optimism another opportunity or romance will arise.
The best part by far in researching toxic positivity was to face up to all the times I engaged in it myself. I reflected on how often I barreled in and told my friends to look on the bright side, you got this, or worse everything happens for a reason. I know we live in an era where there is a lot of excessive attention to people's feelings and a lot of jokes about being triggered, and how everybody is getting so fragile; however, I think with toxic positivity, the opposite is true. It takes a lot of courage to face who we really are. It takes incredible courage to face our jealousies, insecurities, and fears. It also takes a lot of courage to face a loved one’s sadness, grief, and fear. Let us try to let ourselves be human and let our loved ones feel safe to be human around us too.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.