What Toxic Positivity Is and How to Combat It
By Mylo Fisherman
If you ever had a bad day you may have been comforted with something by the likes of “think positive” or “everything happens for a reason.” While these words may be reassuring at the moment, they represent a part of our culture that can do more harm than good: toxic positivity.
According to Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, “Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort.”
It is important to understand that not all positivity is bad when we are talking about toxic positivity. Positivity itself falls under two related but distinct categories: our emotions and the emotions we project to others. Toxic positivity isn’t meant to cause harm. Typically, the intent is to help someone. However, without the means to physically help them, toxic positivity results from your kindness. For example, if you tell a friend who just failed a test, “You’ll do better on the next one” you are actively telling them to dismiss the feelings of defeat they feel for failing their current test and to do better next time. It dismisses how hard they may have studied to get a good grade this time around and dismisses the amount of time they may have spent tutoring.
In addition to toxic positivity being a way to deal with negative emotions in others, it is also a way to deal with negative emotions within oneself. It is completely okay to not want to deal with negative emotions that we may face throughout our lives, but when you force yourself to put on a brave face and have a positive attitude when you aren’t feeling it has adverse effects on your mental health.
Why turning that frown upside down is not the motto you should be living by.
According to Kirkland, “Some research suggests that people who avoid their own negative emotions just feel worse later on.”
This is because forcing a smile can cause you to feel guilty for not feeling happy. I have personally struggled with this for years. As an involved student, I often throw myself into school-sponsored activities when I do not feel the best. I force a smile on my face and attempt to enjoy life when I am hurting inside. This can honestly be very difficult as I am distant from the emotions I should be feeling. In speaking with a therapist I have learned that it is oftentimes best to feel your emotions but not to the point where it is overwhelming.
According to McKenna Princing, a writer and editor for UW medicine, if you want to try and end your cycle of toxic positivity, the first step is to admit when you are doing it. Whether you admit it at the moment or not, try and recognize when you cut your friend off and gave them toxic positivity. Apologize for dismissing their feelings and not being empathetic to their situation. Do the same when you try to put a happy face on when you struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Acknowledge the extra effort it was to pretend like everything was okay when it wasn’t.
Know that it is okay to make these mistakes. We are all human and have flaws. With a bit of acknowledgment, it could change our outlook drastically.
As finals are approaching, be kind to yourself and others. If you are feeling stressed out, anxious, or upset about a grade, it is okay to feel those feelings. It is okay to feel upset or angry if you did your very best and didn’t receive the grade you want. Allow yourself the time to feel the emotions and then allow yourself to move on. Likewise, if a friend comes to you about a low test grade or anything else that is upsetting them, allow them to feel it out and avoid phrases like “don’t cry” and “it happens to the best of us.”
As Kirkland states, “All emotions are functional and have a purpose. They are a signal to the person experiencing them or the person being communicated to.”
If you need help dealing with your negative emotions, you can reach out to Adelphi’s Student Counseling Center by phone at 516-877-3646 or by email at email@example.com.