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Why Positivity can be Toxic

Why Positivity can be Toxic

By Pam Dewey • December 31, 2020

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “good vibes only,” or seen the t-shirt, the coffee mug or framed print. In theory, focusing on positivity seems like a good idea. But the idea that you can will happiness into existence can be problematic.

According to Healthline, “Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset.”

While seeing the good is admirable and can be helpful, finding a silver lining isn’t always possible. Some situations are bad, and sometimes, you feel terrible.

Toxic positivity causes you to avoid your emotions

If you’re only focusing on “good vibes,” then you aren’t allowing yourself to experience the full range of human emotions. When you experience loss — like the loss of a job, a friend or a pet — it’s normal to feel sadness, regret and anger.

Ignoring bad feelings lets these negative emotions build up. Then the feelings can get bigger, and you’ll feel even worse. Allow yourself to feel sad or angry and sit with these emotions.

“When you talk about something bad that happened to you, it helps you let go of that negativity and makes it easier to move on,” says Aric Jensen, Fraser Director of Mental Health. “This is much better for your mental health than trying to pretend you’re happy all the time.”

You might also find it cathartic to write about your feelings or create art that helps you reflect. Even going for a run can give you time to think about your emotions and process.  

You can feel more than one thing at a time

People have a range of emotions, and we can experience many at the same time. You can feel happy your friend got a new job, and at the same time, disappointed that you’ve hit a wall in your career. One feeling doesn’t cancel out the other, and neither feeling is wrong.

Emotions help us better understand ourselves. You shouldn’t feel bad about being disappointed in your career, but maybe that means it’s time to reevaluate things. You can still celebrate your friend’s win while also making some changes in your life.

You can’t choose the emotions you want to have

Our emotions are reflections of what’s going on in our lives and the world. Right now, we are in a pandemic. It’s normal to feel anxious and scared. You may also be dealing with other complexities, like working from home while helping your kids do virtual school. Or maybe you live alone, and you’re struggling with isolation.

You don’t have to pretend to feel okay, or put a positive spin on everything, when you’re really feeling sad, lonely, overworked and stressed. Again, we all are facing a serious health crisis, and sometimes, just getting through the day is all we can manage.

It’s okay to be unproductive

Some people cope by staying busy. They pick up crocheting or learn how to make pasta from scratch. Other people find cleaning their house cathartic. That’s great if that works for you.

You may also be facing depression and anxiety. Starting a new hobby may sound overwhelming. Just because you have more free time doesn’t mean you need to fill it with a new side hustle. Doing the dishes and the laundry might be all you feel you can manage right now. That’s okay, too.

Focusing on “good vibes only” flattens the complexity of our experience. Everyone feels a range of emotions, often many at the same time. None of these feelings is wrong, and allowing yourself to process these is good for your mental health. You can’t just decide not to be depressed, and pretending to do so will only leave you feeling worse in the long run. And remember, that just getting through the day is okay too.