Toxic Positivity is a Huge Problem


Toxic Positivity is a Huge Problem


How often have friends and family responded to your concerns and stress with, "You've got to stay positive," or, "Everything will be okay"? These are examples of toxic positivity. These statements, however well-meaning, only serve to minimize our full range of emotions and aren't particularly helpful - especially when we're facing extraordinary challenges in our caregiving.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity can be defined as excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy and optimistic state in any situation through the denial, minimization, and invalidation of a genuine emotional experience. When a person exhibits toxic positivity they often deny the negative experiences that make us human. Examples of toxic positivity can include friends and family telling you to stop complaining and to be grateful for what you have or saying things that imply depression is a mindset you can easily overcome. This dismissal of emotions may be internalized by those on the receiving end of toxic positivity and can, in turn, make others feel ashamed for experiencing negative feelings. 

Caregivers are often the targets of toxic positivity.

In this piece on caregiving and toxic positivity, the author (a caregiver) reports experiencing toxic positivity at a support group despite this gathering being designated as a safe spaceWhen the members of their group asked one another how they were doing, they primarily focused on gratitude and optimism instead of acknowledging the realities they faced daily such as exhaustion, fear, stress, and anxiety. Although having a positive perspective can be helpful in a given situation, it should not come at the cost of denying or ignoring caregiving challenges.

Effects of toxic positivity include:

  • Health consequences. Forcing a positive perspective encourages others to remain silent and internalize their struggles. It's common for us to repress emotions that we consider bad or believe that others may judge us for expressing. Studies have shown that suppressing emotions like anger, sadness, grief, or frustration can lead to physical stress which, in turn, can decrease immune system and memory function and puts people at higher risk for mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. 
  • Isolation. Toxic positivity can also cause those that want to speak openly about the difficulties of being a caregiver to remain silent and, instead, internalize feelings of loneliness and shame. Caregivers that feel pressure to stay positive in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. Due to not being able to live authentically, caregivers may find it difficult to connect with others or relate to them. In expressing toxic positivity, people unintentionally convey the message, “I only allow good feelings in my presence.” According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma can be a major barrier to people from accessing support and mental health services.
  • Communication issues. All relationships require honesty and the opportunity to be genuine. When limitations are placed on people's feelings, others can come across as insensitive or as an unwillingness to offer sincere care. This can create communication issues between friends and family and cause these relationships to suffer. 
  • Shame and low self-esteem. Those on the receiving end of toxic positivity may feel shame and guilt about the negative emotions they're experiencing. They may be convinced that their feelings are invalid and that they aren’t capable enough to be an efficient and positive caregiver. This shame and guilt can contribute to low self-esteem which can create a harmful cycle of self-defeat. 

How to deal with toxic positivity as a caregiver. 

Accept that negative feelings are normal.

It’s okay to experience negative, uncomfortable emotions. Anger, frustration, fear, and other emotions that we consider negative are a part of the human experience as are positive emotions. Instead of suppressing these emotions, it’s healthier and more effective to manage them without denying them. Allowing yourself to sit with and feel negative emotions and then giving yourself time to reflect and process them may help you see your situation in new ways that empower you to take proper action.

Let others know that your feelings are valid.

Although your and family may have the best intentions with their pep talks, it’s important to remind them that your feelings are valid and they matter. Here are some suggestions from a therapist on how to respond to toxic positivity

  • “Right now, I just need to talk about what happened to me. Can I count on you to listen?”
  • “Thank you for caring. I think it's best for me to sit with my negative emotions first before I try looking on the bright side.”
  • “What happened to me really hurt. I’d like to acknowledge the sadness before I try to move on.”

Find coping mechanisms that work for you.

By practicing mindfulness activities, you can better identify your emotions and respond to them in a healthy and compassionate way. Try journaling in moments that you feel overwhelmed or implement it into your morning or bedtime routines. A study has shown that putting our emotions into words helps us to not only better process our emotions but reduce feelings such as sadness, anger, and pain.

If you've ever used toxic positivity, here's what to say instead.

We've all been guilty of practicing toxic positivity at some point in our lives. Although we typically come from a good and caring place, it's important to understand that supporting others isn't about being positive but, instead, is about empathizing with them. More often than not, people just want their feelings validated, their problems normalized, and to be heard. Instead of trying to give advice or offer tips, try phrases that validate the other person's feelings and offer them support and comfort. Here are some alternative statements you can offer to someone who is struggling.

The bottom line on toxic positivity.

To be human is to experience a wide range of emotions. When we are able to be mindful of our negative feelings in particular, we’re able to better process them and find new solutions to our problems. When supporting friends and family who are caring for someone else, we must come from a place of empathy and resist the temptation to dole out unsolicited advice.

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