Negative emotions are part of the human experience. At one point or another, we’ve all felt frustrated, anxious, sad, or some other uncomfortable emotion. Though loved ones may do their best to support us when we’re feeling low, some well-intentioned words of advice don’t always have a positive impact. Perhaps someone might say, “At least…” or suggest you should “be thankful that ___ didn’t happen,” or mention the famous, “It could be worse.” These well-meaning phrases that we’ve all heard before are examples of toxic positivity. Read on to learn more about how toxic positivity affects your mental health from local therapist and founder of Growing Mindset LLC, Heather Rafanello.
Toxic positivity is a belief that focuses on staying optimistic or keeping a positive mindset no matter what. It negates the ability to acknowledge how challenging, overwhelming, or difficult a situation is because it tricks the listener into focusing on a single perspective: maintaining a positive outlook. Other common examples of toxic positivity include: “You should be grateful,” “Good vibes only,” and “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Let’s make one thing clear: these statements are not malicious and often represent the speaker’s attempt to help someone they love feel better. Regardless of the intention, toxic positivity can actually inadvertently make people feel even worse.
While gratitude is an important part of mental health and arguably nobody would choose to experience anxiety or depression, these feelings are oftentimes valid responses to unpleasant and upsetting situations. Expecting constant positivity is not only unrealistic but it also perpetuates the idea that people should ignore their natural emotional responses.
Keeping all the focus on only the positive can feel invalidating and even discredit the true sadness or pain that someone is experiencing. It also disrupts the natural balance in our lives.
Sure, sometimes finding that positive speck during a dark period can be just what someone needs to bring light back into their life. Other times, this imposed optimism might have an inverse effect and actually double the negativity, causing someone to feel not only sad but also guilty for not staying positive.
Here are some helpful reminders for the next time you find yourself overwhelmed with emotion:
- Emotions are a natural part of the human experience.
- While emotions can be incredibly uncomfortable, they are not dangerous.
- Emotions are an essential part of everyday life — they’re actually just clues here to teach a lesson.
- It’s perfectly okay to not be okay.
Toxic positivity is important to recognize in order to begin to try more beneficial supporting strategies. Not sure where to start? Here are some sample statements to try:
- “It sounds like you’re going through a lot.”
- “Wow, I don’t even know what to say, thank you for telling me.”
- “I can’t even imagine what this must be like for you.”
- “That sounds so hard, please let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you.”
Remember, toxic positivity accidentally drives shame and disconnection. It sends a subtle message that feeling a negative emotion is bad, even when the feeling is completely justified. Support does not have to be positive — in reality, the best support is authentic, validating, and real. At the end of the day, people just want to be heard, acknowledged, and assured that they’re not alone.