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Toxic Positivity


Many of you, especially those who incline toward depression and anxiety, might be wondering how positivity could ever be toxic. The truth is that, like negativity, too much of always being upbeat and look-on-the-bright side can hurt you and others. When Does a Good Attitude Become Toxic Positivity? explains how.

A bit of background. As a therapist, I was trained to identify and help clients focus on resolving their problems. Therefore, I had to ask people about them—over and over again. Then in the 1990s along came the Positive Psychology movement which shifted therapeutic focus to clients’ strength and resilience, a welcome addition to the field. Fortunately, I’ve not felt a clinical need to choose one aspect of self over the other: people have amazing skills as well as enormous problems.

Difficulties arise, however, when we feel we must choose one perspective over the other. You’ve probably met people who are relentlessly cheerful. Maybe you were even raised by this kind of parent who turned every complaint of yours into a lesson in looking at the glass as half full. Perhaps you said you’re disappointed that you didn’t make the cut with your high school basketball team and Mom or Dad went on and on about how that frees up your time to do other things. I hear echoes of this sentiment from clients who feel a need to tell me how grateful they are in the midst of horrendous situations. This is an example of toxic positivity. 

As the article advises, forcing ourselves to smile when our heart is breaking can work against us if we don’t acknowledge feeling crummy first. It’s fine to recognize that you feel nervous about an upcoming job interview, tired from working two jobs, or isolated and lonely in this time of COVID-19, then try to cheer yourself up. It’s not fine to deny that you have these feelings or tell yourself that you shouldn’t have them. That’s how a person becomes inauthentic because they feel a need to hide their downbeat feelings from themselves and the world.

A reminder that emotions are just information to help us survive and thrive. It’s vital to separate acknowledging and experiencing an emotion from what you do with it. As I’ve said before, the goal is to be able to experience and not hide from any feeling. That way you’re getting all the information that is available to you emotionally speaking. Notice your emotions without making judgments about them. Roll with them rather than fight against or force them away and don’t allow others to tell you how to feel. For more information on emotions, read my Food and Feelings Workbook