Why Is "Forced Positivity" Toxic?

In this blog post, I talk about how positivity can become toxic when we try to use it to deny or suppress our authentic emotions and experiences around a challenging situation.

We frequently see this on social media where influencers promote messaging such as "good vibes only" or "everything happens for a reason."

We're often led to believe that anything less than being happy all the time means that we've somehow failed at life. That our life doesn't measure up to what we see as the perfect experiences of others.

Unfortunately, we often come across a similar attitude in real life as well. If we're struggling with something, a friend might tell us to "just let it go" or that we should be grateful for what we have, because a lot of other people have it much worse than we do. While perhaps well-intentioned, it really doesn't help us to feel any better.

In fact, when we encourage others to just look at the bright side of life, without acknowledging what they're going through or allowing them to experience their full range of emotions - we're essentially promoting a kind of bypassing called "toxic positivity."

On the receiving end, it can make us feel unseen, invalidated or even neglected. And over time, it can even make us feel alone and disconnected - because we will begin to feel like no one truly knows who we are.

A key word that can often help us identify toxic positivity is the word "should." For example, maybe we just suffered the loss of a family member, and someone with the greatest of intentions suggests that we "should" be grateful for the wonderful times we had shared with this family member.

Or, similarly, it could also be the word "shouldn't." Like, maybe they tell us that we "shouldn't feel sad" because this family member had lived a long and fulfilling life. While that may be true, that doesn't really help us in the moment. By telling us to deny or suppress our authentic, emotional experience - we're basically being told that what we're feeling right now is not okay. And that can lead to an additional dimension of shame.

Unfortunately, toxic positivity is a common response when dealing with the suffering of others. We just don't want them to be sad. But this is often because we feel powerless and uncomfortable when faced with another person's pain. We want the pain to stop for them so that it can also - stop for us.

This response is so common that many strive towards this excessive optimism or positivity. It can also show up as people trying to curate a perfect image of themselves on social media, rather than allowing others to see a sometimes messy, raw and flawed self.

Our ability to sit with our own uncomfortable emotions and experiences is also a direct reflection of how much we are able to sit with the emotions and experiences that bring us happiness and joy.

We currently live in an instant gratification culture where we are conditioned to seek pleasure and not encouraged to cultivate our capacity to sit with discomfort or pain. That's why for many people, life becomes about escaping reality in an attempt to always feel good. This could be via alcohol, drugs, television. Even things like meditation and yoga can be used to bypass and avoid our authentic, challenging experiences.

Authenticity is the key here. Positivity is great when it's coming from an authentic place. Authentic positivity and optimism can help us get through difficult situations.

So what can we do? If our aim is to not spread toxic positivity, what would be far more helpful would be to practice listening.

To let the other person know that it's okay for them to feel whatever it is that they're feeling right now. And that life sometimes just sucks. By letting them know that they're seen, heard and understood, we validate their authentic, emotions and experiences.

A reminder that we all could probably use is that we don't have to feel like we always need to fix or solve anything. Sometimes people may just be looking to vent and want someone to listen. And other times, people are looking for support or advice. The best thing we can do is to just ask them what they need - and not assume that we already know.

Being happy all the time is just not a real or reasonable expectation we can have of ourselves or others. It's part of the human experience to feel "negative" emotions, such as sadness, anger, grief or disappointment. Instead of pushing them away as unwanted or separate from us, we can try to embrace our authentic emotions and experiences through honesty and curiosity. This will allow us to have much more empathetic and intimate relationships with ourselves and others.