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Toxic positivity: how “positive vibes” aren’t actually helpful for mental health & what to do instead.

Toxic positivity: how “positive vibes” aren’t actually helpful for mental health & what to do instead.

Sometimes when we’re sad, our first instinct is to make the distressing feeling stop. We may not be so interested in understanding why we feel sad, or how to adjust the decisions we’re making to create a more stable mood moving forward. It’s human to simply want to feel better, right now. The unfortunate reality is that telling yourself to “cheer up” doesn’t help your overall mood! Pushing negative thoughts deeper within yourself and trying to force yourself to feel a way you just don’t feel, can make you feel worse.

You may notice that you aren’t the only one trying to jump to feeling better – people often, with best intentions, give advice that can feel toxically positive instead of beneficial! “It could be worse,” someone might say to you when you don’t get the job you interviewed for. “Everything happens for a reason,” they say when you’re distressed about what you read in the morning news. “Positive vibes only,” when you reveal your mental illness to them. “Stop stressing” you say in your head when you’re looking at a seemingly daunting task. 

This idea of minimizing authentic negative feelings and highlighting often falsely forced positive ones is known as “toxic positivity.” And it reaches the majority of us! According to one study, 67% of individuals have experienced this type of talk in the past week alone.

On the surface it can sound very appealing to center our positive feelings when we feel ourselves being dragged down by negativity. However, the way toxic positivity operates can be harmful and the complete opposite of helpful. Toxic positivity can lead to the denial of our feelings and thereby the invalidation of our lived emotional experiences. Toxic positivity essentially tells us that repression is a healthy way to move forward. Instead of giving ourselves space to think about what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling it, and how to address it, toxic positivity tells us to box away our feelings, leaving them unaddressed, and just push forward. Unfortunately, when you do this, the negative feelings don’t stop coming, they just stop having a way to release – and you can build a lot of self judgment about having totally natural and human feelings. In this way they build, piling on top of each other until they take up more and more space within us. 

Several studies have shown that suppressing emotions can be harmful to the psyche. Denying negative feelings as a way to “cope” with negative experiences has been linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms, since people often feel more sad when they’re told not to feel sad. Toxic positivity also leads to the overall numbing of one’s emotional experiences and the failure to process emotions can lead to sleeping difficulties, increased substance abuse, and risks of acute stress responses.  

By suppressing our emotions in this way, toxic positivity can prevent growth and learning. Research suggests that talking about your actual feelings can help lower the intensity of said negative feelings.  It’s important for people to be able to move through what they’re feeling, understanding their stressors and how to alleviate these stressors. In telling yourself to stop feeling what you’re feeling, and to not acknowledge your real experiences, you are hitting the brakes on this part of your brain that is trying to learn and grow. We don’t stop feeling our emotions by suppressing them, we just lose the skills we need to understand and process them.

The reality is, we live in a world that often feels harsh, and it’s not realistic to feel positive in every moment. Especially with social media and news alerts constantly pinging our phones, we can feel several emotions at once. It makes sense to sometimes be overwhelmed by the ways in which your mind, your community, or the country, or the world, isn’t operating in the way you want it to, or to sometimes feel left out or scared or hopeless. That said, there is a way to move through these scary emotions — it just isn’t through toxic positivity. 

There is extreme power in our perceptions and the way we acknowledge both the world around us and the thoughts within us. This is where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which we are HUGE FANS of (and practice here at CHH), comes into play. With CBT, we help you notice all of your feelings, including your discomfort. Over time, not all at once, you work to tolerate and move through the discomfort with a variety of coping strategies. Where toxic positivity asks for immediate change, CBT reminds us that sometimes we will feel sad until we feel happy again, and that’s okay. Change takes time and work, and it’s worth it in the end.

Want some tips for dealing with toxic positivity? Here are some we like – see what works for you!

  1. Remember that experiencing difficulties is an inherent part of the human experience. No one is happy all the time and no one has it easy all the time — that includes you! And it’s different on different days — sometimes you’ll be happier, sometimes you’ll be sadder, sometimes you’ll be a big mix of both. And that is totally normal!
  2. Remind yourself that we can’t compare miseries. We all experience difficulties, and someone will always have it “worse;” but pain is relative, what you’re feeling is valid, and it’s important to recognize and feel the depths of our feelings, even if we don’t understand why we feel them so deeply.
  3. Reframe your thoughts. Instead of thinking about failures, can you think about growth opportunities? Instead of “I did a bad job,” can you switch your perspective to “I’m excited to learn more about this topic”? Instead of “Cheer up,” can you switch to “It’s okay to feel sad now, I trust I’ll feel happy again soon”?
  4. Acknowledge your wins AND your hardships. They are all part of your life, and they all help make you the wonderful and complex human that you are.
  5. Consider how you respond to friends when they express sadness or distress. Practice some phrases to say instead of “it will be okay.” Maybe try “I am here for you” or “This seems so hard. How can I help?” 
  6. Be compassionate towards yourself (yes, this will basically come up in every blog we write because it’s so key). You are human, and being a human is hard work. You’re learning new skills! Like all things, reframing your thoughts is going to be a lifelong practice.

We want you to be happy and healthy, and part of that is allowing yourself to be sad when you have to be sad! Feeling a full range of emotions is part of the human experience. It is so much more meaningful to know that your happiness is genuine and deep, rather than something that you’re forcing upon yourself. Positivity is great, but let’s aim to get there in a realistic and sustainable way.

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