I recently came across the hashtag #toxicpositivity on Instagram and was curious about how these two words were being put together.
I often think about how there is a trend on social media for people to portray themselves as happy and positive all the time. Unfortunately, this can have the effect of making others feel worse if they are struggling.
Happy and positive feelings come and go, as do their counterparts, negativity and downheartedness. Feelings are on a broad spectrum and part of our human experience and not something to deny ourselves.
Suppressing feelings or telling yourself that you should not be feeling a certain way is invalidating. I often tell my clients that suppression leads to depression (while therapy can help with expression).
Feelings don’t need to be fixed; they just exist. It is not helpful to self-shame yourself into some happy feeling and it doesn’t work even if you try. This is especially true now during this time when we are collectively struggling on a global level. Many people tell me they’re feeling pressure to stay strong and positive. If they don’t, they feel odd and wonder if they are weak. They’re not!
The idea that we should focus only on positive emotions while denying ourselves other emotions is toxic positivity. When you are going through difficult times like loss of employment, being unable to do fulfilling volunteer work, or being unable to see loved ones, it isn’t helpful to hear, “It could be worse” or “It will get better.”
It’s okay to remind someone that “this too shall pass,” because it will, but only if you first validate the other person’s difficult feelings. This is the key step that is often missing from these conversations.
So before forcing positivity onto someone who is not ready for it, take these important steps:
- Give the person the opportunity to express authentically in a place where they feel comfortable and safe (in therapy or a support group, or with you as a trusted listener).
- Listen to (don’t suppress) the full range of the feelings being experienced.
- Validate the person’s feelings and give permission to feel whatever they feel (e.g., grief and loss, longing, disappointment).
- Only when the time is right, move to a positive message like, “This too shall pass.”
Being able to share and feel heard is “one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety, while isolation fuels these emotional issues” as shared by Heather Monroe, LCSW and senior clinician at Newport Academy.
We are experiencing a collective trauma with this pandemic and there isn’t room for toxic positivity. This is a time where we need connection to people more than ever. And this connection must include honest sharing of emotions – not denying the struggles we feel.