Toxic Positivity: It’s Ok to Not Be Ok All of The Time
“Good vibes only.” “Never give up.” “Just keep smiling.” “Look on the bright side.” We’ve heard these phrases time and time again. In times of difficulty, we may be told to “stay positive” and to “count our blessings.” We may tell ourselves that, comparatively, “others have it worse” and that “everything happens for a reason.” It seems as though we are, at times, conditioned to comfort ourselves or others through blanket positivity as an attempt to bring forced optimism and light to upsetting or dark moments. But do these gestures really bring us solace and support in times of need? Even if well-intentioned, I question whether these positive spins on difficult experiences really have their hoped-for impact, and I worry that the perpetuation of a positivity-only belief system not only praises “desirable” emotions, like happiness and hope, but polarizes and even casts judgement on “undesirable” emotions, like sadness, anger, and guilt. I recently learned of a term that resonated with my understanding of this experience. It’s called “toxic positivity.”
What is toxic positivity?
As described by clinical psychologist Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, toxic positivity is the “assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or situation, they should only have a positive mindset or – my pet peeve term – ‘positive vibes’.”
While optimism isn’t an unhealthy mindset, toxic positivity is an “overgeneralized extreme” form of positive thinking. It prioritizes an “I’m ok, all the time” outlook, placing importance and pressure on experiencing what are considered to be “positive” emotions and, in the process, discouraging experiencing what we see as “negative” emotions. As a result, our understanding of and reaction to what have become secondary emotions – the “negative” emotions, such as shame, envy, and confusion – can be unhealthy, “intense and maladaptive.” Toxic positivity invalidates the authentic, very human experience of full-range emotional expression.
Toxic positivity appears to be embedded in our culture. As mentioned above, it can take the form of statements of optimism. I open my Instagram and see phrases like, “Be Grateful” written in flashy pink bubble letters or in inspirational quotes artfully situated under dreamy beach pictures. It’s the pressure felt to pick up a new hobby or hone a skill during quarantine, or to answer, “I’m fine” to “How are you holding up?” when battling personal adversity. It may look like defaulting to telling a child to “be a big kid” and “be brave” when they are scared or sad; attempting to uplift friends going through break-ups by saying “you’ll get over them, you’ll find someone else;” trying to support loved ones experiencing loss with words of encouragement like, “stay strong” and “this, too, shall pass.” I, for one, am guilty of saying all of these to myself and others. I imagine we all are at some point in our lives – we want to help those we hope to support feel better. I am uncomfortable in knowing that I’m not – or my loved ones are not – feeling happy or satisfied.
I’m learning to understand the many ways in which I have been influenced by the narrative that positivity is productivity, and that strength and success is measured in the ability to persevere and push forward. I know I’m not alone in that experience.
Yet, this societal context is a form of denial – of our feelings and of our experiences, and thus, of our true selves. So importantly, it can deprive us of living lives that are honest and visible to ourselves and to those around us.
Ditching the toxic positivity model in favor of “emotional agility”
I feel that breaking the toxic positivity narrative means feeling empowered – individually and collectively – to embrace all of our emotions. I understand it to mean that we must build on our capacity to learn how to identify, experience, and manage our emotional spectrum so that we can live more authentic and healthy lives.
I recently watched a great TED Talk with Dr. Susan David, psychologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, titled “The gift and power of emotional courage.” In her talk, Dr. David discusses the ways in which our culture has led us to engage in “rigid denial” of “unwanted emotions” because it feels “inconvenient,” or as I discussed earlier, defies our desire for comfortability. However, Dr. David seems to say it best: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
She pitches the practice of “emotional agility,” which she says is “the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially courage to take values-connected steps.” It is about understanding our emotions as critical pieces of data that “contain flashing lights to things we care about.” Harnessing this skill paves the path towards personal connection, growth, and truth. To me, THAT is productive. That is personal strength, success, and power. That is self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-confidence. That is the narrative worth fighting for.
Virginia Mittnacht, LSW is a Staff Therapist at our Center City and University City Offices in Philadelphia, PA; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7007.