We’ve all experienced it in some shape or form. We express our feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness, and/or sadness, and are met with responses like: “it could be worse,” “look on the positive side,” “it’s not that bad, so many other people have it worse,” whether it’s our friends, family, partner, or ourselves. These are examples of toxic positivity (Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful for Your Mental Health, 2020).
Toxic positivity is the stance that when emotional pain or difficult situations should be met with positivity. Authentic human negative emotional experiences are not welcomed by the “positive vibes only” tribe, but rather suppressed, diminished, minimized, invalidated or ignored. The idea behind this, is that negative emotions are bad and that you should face every moment with positivity and happiness (Scully, 2020). I should also add here that when someone tries to push positive vibes onto an individual who is not at their best, is spreading toxic positivity. In-validating a person’s emotional struggles and pain, can make that individual feel worse about their situation which can lead to feelings of shame and/or guilt (Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful for Your Mental Health, 2020).
Shame is saying, “I’m bad,” as it focuses on self. Guilt is saying, “I did something bad,” as it focuses on behavior (Suttie, 2016). If you were wondering, research has shown that our brain registers the pain of shame the exact same way it registers physical pain. To add to that, research has shown that shame is highly correlated with things like addiction, depression, violence, and aggression (Suttie, 2016).
Brené Brown, an expert researcher of shame and vulnerability, recognizes three primary responses to shame: “moving away, moving toward, and moving against it,” (Suttie, 2016). If you’re someone who moves away, you might “disappear” in your own life, keep secrets, and you don’t talk about it. If you’re someone who moves toward, you engage in people-pleasing behaviors as a way out. And if you are someone who moves against, you might use shame and aggression as a means to fight back, so if someone shames you, you come back at that person with something hurtful, painful, or shaming. These can be called “shame shields,” and move you further away from “your authenticity and your real self,” (Suttie, 2016).
So what does this mean? Being positive is not bad but approaching individuals with positive perspectives during an experience that is causing them distress, is hurtful not helpful. You entered the conversation with the best of intentions to uplift this person or help them think less negatively, but that does not change the impact that can be felt in this exchange.
How do we do better? An article on Toxic Positivity from DailyLife.com identifies a few ways to avoid and overcome toxic positivity. To summarize, they’ve identified that listening and affirming, setting boundaries, and reducing social-media usage can help (2020). I would encourage anyone to watch the short clip, Brené Brown on empathy vs sympathy (see link in references). Being able to identify the differences in being sympathetic verses empathetic will help to change the ways we engage with those around us who may not be living their best lives. Instead of invalidating what someone is feeling because it could be worse, find that part of yourself that can relate to what they might being feeling, and sit with that and try to understand.
Are you hiding how you feel? Are you trying to move on and not confront your real emotions? Do you offer a positive perspective as opposed to compassion or empathy to other’s feelings or even your own? Do you suppress your own emotions by saying “it is what it is,” or “there’s nothing I can do about it?” Do you feel guilty and ashamed of your feelings, so you hide them? (Scully, 2020).
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Brené Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy. (2016, April 1). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZBTYViDPlQ
Scully, S. M. (2020, July 22). ‘Toxic Positivity’ Is Real — and It’s a Big Problem During the Pandemic. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/toxic-positivity-during-the-pandemic#What-is-toxic-positivity?
Suttie, J. (2016, February 17). How to Listen to Pain. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_listen_to_pain
Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful for Your Mental Health. (2020, September 21). Daily Life. https://dailylife.com/article/toxic-positivity