Toxic Positivity

By Kelsey Kuehn, LPC

Messages that we need to be “okay” or “happy” are everywhere. From the moment we’re born, the second a baby cries, what do we instinctively do? We hush them, repeat “it’s okay, you’re okay,” and take action to soothe them. This is innate, natural, and normal. But the thing we as humans are conditioned to forget is, Why does a baby cry?

Yes, I said it. I want the baby to cry. Not because I’m heartless but because crying is the baby’s smart way of communicating. That baby is saying, “I’m having an emotion” or “I have a need!” and this allows the parent to reflect on what the baby might need. Unfortunately, this ability to communicate our feelings and needs gets harder when we get older. As a therapist, I see this all the time…people having difficulty identifying their feelings and needs, and communicating that to others.

I credit this to the subtle yet impactful messages we get growing up. I think back to witnessing a friend get pretty badly injured when I was a kid. The parents came running, saying over and over, “You’re okay! Don’t worry!” But it was clear to me, even as a child, that my friend wasn’t okay…her arm was broken! We should have been worrying, especially my friend.

In our current culture, we tend to hear messages like these:

It could be worse!
Everything happens for a reason!
Good vibes only!
Just be positive!

Starting in infancy we continuously learn that sadness, pain, and “negative” emotions are not okay to have. A film that beautifully portrays the harmful impact of this toxic positivity is Inside Out, about girl named Riley who goes through many life changes after her family is uprooted to another state. Her emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) attempt to guide Riley through her life; however, they are all operating under rules dictated by Joy. Riley is only allowed to be happy, positive, and easy-going. Riley’s mom tells her that if she just keeps smiling it would be a big help to the family. Riley’s relationships crumble and her interests fade, and she becomes detached and apathetic when she attempts to push down vital emotions besides Joy. The film shows us that toxic positivity leads to Riley having more negative emotions than ever before.

Another problem with trying to be happy all the time is that it undermines our humanness. While we may have good intentions in attempting to cheer someone up, we’re often unsuccessful. I don’t think it has ever helped me to receive advice such as “Don’t worry about it! or “It’ll be fine!” What people need most is to be allowed to have their feelings and for those feelings to be validated.

What helps the most is compassion. Compassion forces us to dig into our own emotional landscape and attempt to feel what the other person may be feeling. When someone can sit with us through our pain, we feel less alone and more human. After we allow a feeling, and particularly when we feel understood by someone else, we’re then better able to identify our needs and take action. In Inside Out, at one point Joy attempts to comfort another character by distracting them from the pain they’re experiencing…and of course her attempts are unsuccessful. Sadness, on the other hand, sits with the character through their pain and is able to empathize. The hurting character feels heard, supported, and not alone. Sadness is thus critical for two reasons: it enables us to heal, and it enables us to have empathy and compassion toward others. If we believe in “good vibes only,” we have to put on a facade, suppress vital emotions that help us heal, are unable to connect with others, and deny parts of ourselves that are integral to who we are.

We tend to have all-or-nothing ideas about how things work, and I’m not saying that we can’t attempt to have a positive mindset or strive for a purpose-driven life. I do encourage the practice of gratitude and challenging negative, unhelpful thought patterns. But in order to feel joy, we need to also feel sadness. This is the human condition. If we attempt to avoid this, we’ll likely will suffer the consequences.

I realize this all seems counterintuitive. But many things are, in the realm of psychology. As an example, Do you know how we treat anxiety? We learn how to tolerate the presence of anxiety in order to get to the other side of it. If we apply the same logic here, in order to decrease our pain or sadness, we need to feel it as well.

The pressure to appear positive or happy all the time also creates a breeding ground for shame, or feeling bad about ourselves. Like it or not, our society and our friends and loved ones are constantly creating expectations about how we should feel. It’s easy to get the idea that something is wrong with us when we feel emotions other than joy. When we believe something is wrong with us for having a feeling, we lose our inner guide and sense of self. We then start to judge ourselves harshly and begin to think we’re weak or inadequate. The good news, however, is that there is a solution to this pattern. Remember how offering compassion to someone who is hurting is the most effective response? The same is true for you. When you are experiencing a difficult emotion, the most important thing you can do is offer yourself that very same compassion.

After a long, exhausting day, I may be conditioned to say something like “At least I didn’t get fired today!” Instead I might try offering myself some compassion: “Today was exhausting and I notice myself feeling drained and tired. I’m going to listen to these feelings and allow myself to rest.”

If you find yourself trying to cheer someone up with a little too much positivity, here are some alternative things you could say. On the left are common phrases classified as toxic positivity; on the right are accepting and compassionate responses.

Just be happy! → I can see that you’re upset. Would you like to talk about it?

Positive vibes only! → No matter what you’re feeling, I’m here for you.

At least… OR It could be worse! → That sounds so hard. I’m so sorry that happened.

Everything will be okay in the end! → I want you to know I’m thinking of you.

Everything happens for a reason → How can I support you during this difficult time?

Sometimes we are not okay, and that’s okay.

A few more tips: If you find yourself feeling worse due to toxic positivity, it might be helpful to unsubscribe from social media sites with “inspirational” quotes or influencers who leave you feeling inadequate or like you’re doing something wrong. Try to become aware of messages you hear that deny your humanness, such as like “Just be happy!” Even becoming aware of your own unhelpful responses can help not only others in your life, but yourself as well. Practice being a compassionate friend and give yourself some of that compassion, too.

After all, we are all just human beings doing our best, and that in itself is enough.

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