Positivity has an undeniable power. From repeating affirmations to expressing gratitude, tuning into the good side of life will, inevitably, help you feel good. Cultivating a more positive mindset has even been found to have numerous psychological and physical wellbeing benefits such as lower levels of distress, greater resistance to the common cold, and better cardiovascular health.
Forcing yourself and others to be happy all the time, however, is not a sustainable way to achieve this. Toxic positivity is a label given to the culture (largely existing on social media) of portraying yourself as permanently positive, putting the blinkers on to negativity, and encouraging others to do the same. It stems from the belief that if you keep smiling and push away negative emotions then you will always feel good. Instead, it manifests in a fear of any emotion other than happiness.
Signs of toxic positivity in how you treat yourself might be a pressure to hide or lie about your true feelings, attempting to “just get on with it,” or feeling guilty for your emotions. In the way you respond to others, it can be minimizing their experience and perspective with generalizations, silencing their feelings because a situation “could be worse” and “it is what it is” or shaming them for not being happy and positive when you are. Spreading toxic positivity can result in denying, minimalizing, and invalidating the authentic human experience. It can create an environment of shame and guilt for natural responses.
In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson acknowledges the necessity of negative emotions:
“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or squash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”
Manson makes the crucial case against toxic positivity: you need negatives to have positives. If something sad is happening in your life, you’re allowed to feel sad. You’re not denying the power of positivity, you’re just responding authentically. And when a friend comes to you to vent, you want to be able to create a safe space for them to release their emotions.
Genuine optimism differs from toxic positivity in that it involves moving through life’s ebbs and flows, believing that you are equipped to handle it all. It isn’t about being perfect and it isn’t about being positive all the time. Instead, it’s about embracing every thought, feeling, and emotion, with the knowledge they’ll pass. To be genuinely optimistic, you can seek good thoughts and feelings, whilst permitting yourself to experience bad ones too. By facing negative emotions head-on, you can build long-term resilience, be open to new opportunities and breakthroughs, and form deeper connections with others.
Here are 5 ways to replace toxic positivity with genuine optimism in the way you speak to yourself and others:
- Instead of “Other people have it worse,” try “you are not alone and there are people who can help you”
- Instead of “you’ll get over it,” try ‘you are resilient and with support, you’ll get through it”
- Instead of feeling guilty for having a bad day, think of small ways you can make it a little better.
- Instead of ‘positive vibes only’, remind yourself, and others, that “it’s okay not to be okay”
- Instead of “sucking it up,” express how you feel about it in a safe space