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Mental Health Experts Explain What Toxic Positivity Is and How It Can Hurt Your Relationship

Updated on September 3, 2020
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Born in London, I currently live and work in Accra, Ghana. I am a writer and creative entrepreneur.

Toxic Positivity

Mental Health Experts Explain What Toxic Positivity Is and How it Can Hurt Your Relationship

Always looking on the bright side of life can be a form of denial, compartmentalizing negative emotions, and "pushing through" can be damaging. Refusing to accept that life is not always going to be perfect can be a toxic way to think. Positive thinking is a good thing however, learning to deal with negative situations with honesty and acceptance is crucial. In this article, I am going to talk about toxic positivity and analyze expert opinion on how damaging toxic positivity can be.

What is Toxic Positivity Anyway?

According to psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW

"Toxic positivity involves focusing on allowing yourself to feel, or only expressing emotions that our culture deems as positive because they make us feel good." She also states that "Relentless Polyanna-ing is cute for a while but it's also inauthentic- and it stifles real responses to hard situations. More than just being positive and upbeat in the face of struggle or challenges, toxic positivity is about denying, minimizing, and silencing your (or others) authentic feelings"

Minimizing authentic feelings and responses to difficult life situations can be extremely damaging. For example, you lose your job, your dream job, the job you worked hard all of your adult life for. Yes, you can tell yourself that everything happens for a reason and break out the champagne to celebrate your new-found independence. Tell yourself that it is God's way of telling you to step up and move on. However, deep down you feel raw emotion, grief, anger, guilt, shame.

As a British born African/Ghanaian, growing up I was encouraged to "Shut up and get on with it." Hide your emotions and focus on the positive was the order of the day. I developed a real and relentless attachment to the idea of "thinking positive" through every situation. I watched my mother grieve the death of her brother for a few days and then get up and go to work and pray her way through the grief, never really talking about the pain. Burying it deep inside as if it would just disappear one day. I understood her though, I understood her to need to pretend, to put on a brave face, but it was a toxic way of dealing with pain. You need to feel it, raw and gutwrenching, it's the only way to heal (my opinion).

I have spoken to many therapists over the years who highlighted my Little Miss Sunshine thought patterns. I am guilty of minimizing and putting feelings and thoughts away until I have the guts to face them. I am also guilty of telling other people, friends, and family to just get on with it and think positive. I am changing and learning and growing and for the sake of my son, I have forced myself to change the way I think about negative situations. I encourage him to feel emotions, talk about them, process them, and use them to generate creative ideas. Toxic positivity is a real thing and I am learning to recognize when I am falling back into my old Pollyanna habits.

Psychotherapist Jennifer Murayama, a teacher at The Ackerman Institute for the Family and therapist with mental health provider Alma, talks about toxic positivity and she states:

"Little Miss Sunshines don't want to know about their own bad feelings, and won't acknowledge it in other people either. You can't talk to them about your struggles because they won't listen. It reminds me of the phrase 'positive vibes only.'”

Counselor Myisha Jackson LPC gives her 10 cents about toxic positivity too:

"It is believed that if you focus on the negative emotions, then it will bring on negative feelings and behaviors. You are acting like they are not even there."

Why Toxic Positivity Is So Harmful?

There isn't anything good or bad about feelings, positive or negative. According to Koenig,

"In truth, emotions are value-neutral, although they may generate happiness or sadness in us, they are merely giving us information, as do our senses about the safety or threat of our environment. We need all of our emotions to survive and thrive."

When you try to be positive all the time and ignore every real feeling, you deny yourself the opportunity to gain the tools that you need to cope with negative situations. I remember in high school, I had a friend called Anna. Her parents were extremely strict and demanded the highest grades, she was obsessed with being perfect all the time and when our friend passed away, she didn't cry. She refused therapy and told us that therapy is for weak people. I sat through therapy to process my raw emotions and grief but it didn't feel natural to me at all. It felt wrong because growing up, I was conditioned to just get on with it and keep quiet. Talking through my feelings and admitting that I felt sad, angry, and guilty about the death of my friend felt liberating, it was freeing and the counselor gave me the tools to cope with the emotions that I was feeling. The tools helped me through my final year exams because I kept thinking about my friend. It was hard, really hard. I even took a week off school, I spent the whole time crying, talking, writing, painting, drawing, and talking some more. My friend Anna committed suicide years later. I am not saying that her constant need to think positive and just get on with it was responsible, I don't know that for sure, but it could have been the reason. I hope that wherever she is, Anna is resting peacefully.

Jackson states that "It's Ok to not be OK, you don't have to fake happiness and ignore how you truly feel."

Releasing negative thoughts and feelings and talking through pain, anger, or feelings of despair is vital. Ignoring or suppressing emotions doesn't make them go away, it actually intensifies them. Bottling your feelings can have a detrimental effect on your health. In a 2013 research paper published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, the evidence presented revealed that people who suppress their emotions and feeling were at a higher risk of premature death than those who release them. Repressing emotions can cause serious health problems if left unchecked.

Toxic positivity can destroy relationships according to Murayama. She states:

"When you pivot quickly to highlight the bright side, instead of taking time to make space to hear their feelings, it's like putting in earplugs and slapping a muzzle on the other person. Insisting on good vibes can make you distance yourself from those around you as you can't be honest or listen to their struggles. The strain of always being positive can also make you feel angry, isolated, and self-destructive. Without more sustainable outlets for negative feelings."

How to Spot Toxic Positivity

As much as I like to think positive at times and focus on achieving my goals and all that jazz. I am trying to unlearn certain behavioral patterns and steer away from toxic positivity. I like to express myself and talk through my feelings, good or bad. I think it is important to know how to recognize toxic positivity, especially if like me, you are trying to steer clear.

Koenig states that people who exhibit signs of toxic positivity find it difficult to express any other feeling but positive feelings. She says:

"It may be expressed by someone saying they always feel 'fine'. or trying to make yourself feel fine all the time. They won't be able to have conversations where you express discomfort or distress because they'll immediately invalidate your feelings, try to convince it's not so bad, or refuse to listen."

Expressing your true thoughts and feelings liberates you. If you allow yourself to process your raw emotions and it helps you to collect the necessary tools to help you deal with negative situations in the future.

Koenig also says:

"I teach people that negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are normal," Jackson says. "It's how you react to them."

Bottom Line

Acknowledging your true feelings is important, people deal with negative situations in different ways, however, minimizing and refusing to accept that negative thoughts and feelings exist, is damaging and it could be detrimental to your physical, emotional, and mental health, it could also harm meaningful and loving relationships.


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