Amid a deadly pandemic, many of us have been longing for happier days. During uncertain and challenging situations, it’s normal to want more positivity in our lives. But while the attitude of “positive vibes only” seems helpful during difficult times, experts have been warning otherwise. While the exact origin of the term “toxic positivity” is hard to identify, we’ve all likely seen examples of it:
“Look on the bright side!”
“Everything’s going to be fine!”
“Things could be worse!”
These examples show up in comments by friends, colleagues, family members, and social media posts.
During the pandemic, toxic positivity can also show up in the pressure to use this time to bake delicious food, meditate every day, learn new skills, and do a lot of self-care to improve ourselves.
Although people who share these messages may mean well, experts warn that avoiding negative emotions can end up doing much more harm than good.
However, not all positivity is toxic. In fact, some positivity can be healthy and helpful. Researchers have found, for example, that positive thinking and positive self-talk can help with stress management and improve our overall physical and psychological well-being.
How positivity can be toxic and hurt our mental health
Positivity becomes toxic when it prevents us from feeling a full range of emotions. When it shames us into believing that being positive is the only way to cope.
As much as we would like, we cannot make ourselves feel only happy. Emotions, including difficult ones like sadness and grief, are part of our shared human experience.
Toxic positivity can also invalidate and minimize our experiences. For example, pressuring others (or ourselves) into being positive in the face of systemic issues like racism and challenging situations like infertility can be harmful and almost always unhelpful.
According to research, allowing ourselves to process negative feelings and emotions and not denying them is how we heal.
Finding healthier ways to approach positivity
There is no magic formula for a healthy amount of positivity in our lives, which varies from person to person.
However, allowing ourselves and others to feel negative emotions like anger or sadness without shame or judgment is a good place to start.
Experts suggest that it’s vital that we listen to ourselves and others. That we show empathy when someone is going through a difficult time, without trying to fix the situation or telling them to “look at the bright side.”
We can also promote healthy positivity on social media by taking a critical look at our posts. Before posting or sharing something online, it’s worth asking ourselves:
- Does this content invalidate the experience of people who are struggling with difficult circumstances?
- Does it perpetuate the myth that negative feelings are a sign of weakness?
- How would this post make me feel if I were experiencing negative emotions?
These are just some examples of how we can analyze whether we may be perpetuating toxic positivity online.
We can’t avoid negative and difficult emotions in life, but we can learn to live in harmony with them. Allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions can make us stronger, healthier, and more empathic people.