In the midst of a raging pandemic and widespread social unrest, these days it can feel as if reassuring platitudes are inescapable.
“While cultivating a positive mind-set is a powerful coping mechanism, toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative,” said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones.”
Think of it as having “a few too many scoops of ice cream,” Dattilo said.
“It’s really good and it makes us feel better, but you can overdo it,” she said. “Then, it makes us sick.
“Or trying to shove ice cream into somebody’s face when they don’t feel like having ice cream,” she continued. “That’s not really going to make them feel better.”
With data indicating that anxiety and depression, among other mental health problems, have surged to historic levels in recent months, adding toxic positivity to the mix may only exacerbate the rising tide of negative emotions by preventing people from working through the serious issues they’re experiencing in a healthy way, experts say.
“By far the most common [phrase] is ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It will be fine,’ ” said Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “You’re stating that there really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed, period. You’re kind of shutting out the possibility for further contemplation.”
The exact origins of the label “toxic positivity” are murky, but Preston said the idea is rooted in American culture, which values positivity.
“It’s an attractive behavior in people that makes them seem more well adapted and more popular with their peers, so there are a lot of reasons people want to seem or be positive,” said Preston, who specializes in empathy, altruism and the way emotions affect behavior.
But people who are genuinely effusive and upbeat aren’t the issue, she said.
“It’s a problem when people are forced to seem or be positive in situations where it’s not natural or when there’s a problem that legitimately needs to be addressed that can’t be addressed if you don’t deal with the fact that there is distress or need,” she said.
Take, for example, negative emotions stemming from the current state of the country.
Denying, minimizing or invalidating those feelings through external pressure or your own thoughts can be “counterproductive and harmful,” Dattilo said.
“ ‘Looking on the bright side’ in the face of tragedy of dire situations like illness, homelessness, food insecurity, unemployment or racial injustice is a privilege that not all of us have,” she said. “So promulgating messages of positivity denies a very real sense of despair and hopelessness, and they only serve to alienate and isolate those who are already struggling.”
Internalizing such messages can also be damaging, she said.
“We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt,” she said. “We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem solving.”
Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them, may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. One 2018 study tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults and found that people who habitually avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse.
“People who tend to not judge their feelings, not think about their emotions as good or bad, not try to avoid or put distance between themselves and their emotions, these people tend to have better mental health across the board,” said Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author.
Desperately wanting to feel happy can leave people experiencing what Ford calls a “meta-emotion,” or “an emotion about an emotion.” That meta-emotion is often disappointment, she said, because you aren’t as happy as you want to be.
“Those moments of essentially negativity accumulate over time and can damage mental health,” she said.
There are a number of ways to address negative feelings without falling into toxic positivity, according to experts.
It’s important for people to normalize and label their experiences while removing any expectations and goals that they should feel better than they do, Dattilo said.
“Recognize that how you feel is valid, no matter what,” she said, later adding, “It’s okay not to be okay.”
Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Philadelphia, recommended mindfulness techniques that allow people to sit with their emotions.
“There is no rush to have to do something to get out of the present moment,” Zuckerman said. “In fact, the more that you do that, the more discomfort and anxiety you’ll feel. It’s okay not feeling okay, and it’s okay not knowing what to do with yourself in that moment.”
She also encouraged people to set personal goals focused on behaviors instead of feelings.
“Not ‘I want to be happier’ because happier is an emotion, but if I had a video camera on you, what would you be doing that I could see that I would know you were happy?” she said.
But Zuckerman cautioned against feeling pressure to tackle lofty tasks such as picking up a new hobby or learning a foreign language — activities that have been promoted on social media during the pandemic as people have rushed to reframe coronavirus lockdowns as a positive experience.
“To expect that this time is going to be the time to make yourself better and to change yourself, that’s the toxic positivity,” she said, noting, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to make the best of it, but making the best of it is different from toxic positivity. Making the best of it is accepting the situation as it is and doing the best you can with it, whereas toxic positivity is avoidance of the fact that we’re in a really bad situation.”
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Using the appropriate language is equally critical to steering clear of toxic positivity, especially when trying to be supportive to others, said Debra Kaysen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
“It’s really about keeping the attention on the other person,” Kaysen said. “You’re giving the person a place where they can actually have the emotions they’re having and doing that first before you jump in and try to fix it.”
She suggests first asking what kind of support the person would like and making sure to validate their emotions, while reinforcing the fact that you are there for them.
“One thing you could ask is, ‘What would be most helpful for you?’ ” she said. “Saying things like, ‘Yeah, this is a really hard situation.’ ”
The key, Dattilo said, is finding “a more balanced approach to how we understand how we feel and what we do about it.”
“It’s okay to have a positive and optimistic outlook and feel sad at the same time,” she said. “We can feel sad and be grieving and still look forward to the future. Both of those are necessary for a healthy outlook and sense of well-being.”
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