The Toll of Toxic Positivity
If you've spent any amount of time on social media, you've likely experienced a seemingly endless supply of positivity. From hashtags espousing #goodvibesonly or #nobaddays to influencers telling you about all of the great things they're doing while smiling, it may seem like everyone has their lives figured out except for you.
This is the essence of toxic positivity, the belief that a positive mindset is all you need to surmount any obstacle. It's proponents claim that by casting out all negative emotions, you'll be able to float through life on a cloud (or something like that). The thing about this type of toxic positivity is that it's well-intentioned, but it can actually end up causing more problems than it solves. Let's look at how it works and how you can identify it and combat it when necessary.
What is toxic positivity?
It's the idea that an optimistic attitude is of the utmost importance in conquering all of life's obstacles. Whether it's a divorce, money troubles, body issues, or any of life's ups-and-downs, toxic positivity would have you believe that a smile and a positive attitude will get you through.
That sounds nice...so what's the problem?
Well the problem is that this idea is unrealistic and the only way to never experience negativity is to be a dead person. It will just never happen. Do me a favor...don't think about a pink elephant. It's okay...I know...you immediately thought of a pink elephant. The same goes for negative emotions. If someone tells you not to think negatively, you may be able to stamp it out for a few minutes, but it will inevitably come creeping back in.
So what are some of the effects of toxic positivity?
Shame: Studies suggest that we vastly underestimate the amount of negative emotions that others have. So if we're constantly experiencing messages that negativity should be avoided and that everyone is positive all the time, it will naturally induce feelings of shame. It will encourage people to quietly experience their pain because they think that they're alone in their thoughts. For more info on why shame is a huge problem, we encourage you to dive into the work of Brene Brown, she's really cornered the market.
Suppressing emotions: In trying to suppress the emotions that you naturally are feeling, you're attempting what it is to avoid being an authentic human and you're actually engaging in avoidance. By denying or trying to avoid difficult emotions, you're actually hindering your growth as a human. It's only through acknowledging and working through challenging emotions that we can grow. But that's difficult and makes for a less fun Instagram post. Nobody has #FOMO over going to therapy...
Isolation: If you feel like you're the only one going through something, that's very isolating. If everywhere you look, it seems that everyone is happy and positive and has life figured out, it's gonna feel like you're a weirdo who can't get it together. You're not Eeyore, you're just human. What you're seeing portrayed on the internet is not real. Don't physically or mentally isolate yourself because you think you're alone in experiencing negative emotions.
Okay so how will I know it when I see it?
In response to something negative happening in your life such as job loss or a death, you're met with statements like "just be positive", "keep your chin up", "everything happens for a reason", "harden up", or "get a thicker skin". Likewise, someone may try to minimize your negative feelings in order to avoid them, or even try to shame you over negative feelings. This may result in you trying to hide your true feelings or get stoic in order to "get over it".
So what can you do if you encounter toxic positivity?
Manage but don't avoid emotions: Negative emotions can be immensely helpful by giving you information about what areas of your life you'd like to change. Go to therapy.
You can feel more than one thing at a time: It's okay to feel anxious and nervous but excited about something. You can have concerns or even be frightened. Multiple emotions can exist at once. Name them and try to be specific with yourself about what you're feeling. It can help you to understand your emotional self more completely.
Listen and be supportive of others: If you're someone who tends to try to suppress negative emotions, either in yourself or others, it's important to listen to others and be supportive. Practice empathy . Don't project your fears onto others who are trying to honestly express themselves.
Be aware of your own feelings after being exposed to messages: If you find yourself browsing Instagram and suddenly start to feel bad about yourself, try to trace where that came from. If you tend to follow "inspirational" accounts but are left feeling guilty about your own life or shameful about your experiences, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship to social media.
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