“Good vibes only.” “Look on the bright side.” “Just stay positive.”
These are three seemingly harmless phrases people no doubt encounter regularly. You might see them on t-shirts, coffee mugs or social media posts. When taken at face value, they seem like encouraging words meant to help someone out. But could there be an underlying, even toxic issue at hand?
These phrases are all part of an emerging concept of “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity is being overly optimistic to the point of diminishing someone’s emotional value by shutting down that person’s negative feelings.
“Toxic positivity shuts down that sense of allowing someone to be whole emotionally and to experience all of their feelings,” says Erin Brewer-Spritzer, PsyD, Medical Psychologist Fellow at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “When people try to push only these positive thoughts on someone, they dismiss the other person’s current feeling of pain or suffering.”
She adds that being surrounded or influenced by toxic positivity can lead to feelings of shame or guilt when you experience the other side of the coin.
“People think, ‘if I can’t be positive, it’s my fault.’ That mindset can lead someone already going through a tough time to feel isolated or alone. In reality, sometimes moments in life can just suck. Feelings of anger, fear, or resentment are valid human emotions.”
Dr. Brewer-Spritzer also explains the pandemic certainly didn’t help this line of thinking.
“The pandemic caused a lot of people to feel isolated, literally and figuratively,” she adds. “The pandemic was and still is a collective trauma. We don’t know the long-term mental impact this will have on us.”
When do things cross the line?
It can be hard to identify toxic thinking in yourself or others. There is a fine line and it can be tough to tell when things cross from “genuine” to “toxic.”
“Genuine positivity is optimism and hope. It’s good to be optimistic, but when you avoid holding space for uncomfortable or hard feelings, you’re invalidating your full spectrum of emotions.”
But what happens when you’re dealing with another person who doesn’t realize they are being toxic? After all, they want to support you through a challenging situation and might not know they are invalidating your feelings.
“Communication is key,” stresses Dr. Brewer-Spritzer. “If you aren’t forward with someone, negative feelings can build. When that happens, you might think twice about sharing with that person. When you suppress emotions or hold things in, it may come out in other ways that can damage your mental health or relationships.”
Friends are there for one another and it is important to remember that while people come from a meaningful place, their words may have the opposite effect.
“We don’t always want ‘help’ when we vent to someone. We just need someone to validate our feelings and show empathy,” says Dr. Brewer-Spritzer. “Explain to someone the best way they can help and support you. If you’re worried about blowing things out of proportion when stressed, address the issue once you’re calm or away from the situation.”
True friends will understand the message you are trying to get across, no matter how you choose to tell them, but there is one group that may do more harm than good to your mental state.
“I would be cautious of ‘drive-by’ toxic positivity from people you aren’t as close with,” she says. “These would be people who may post a comment or share something meant to help you, but instead sends the message that this person is not emotionally or psychologically safe.
Acquaintances may have the best intentions when offering words of encouragement, but these types of encounters more often leave the recipient feeling triggered and disconnected. One way to buffer the impact on your mental health is to look at the overly positive platitude such as “everything happens for a reason,” “it could be worse” or any statement that starts with “at least.” Ask yourself – who is this statement for? Often you will find these “drive-by” encounters are more helpful to the person posting than the person they are trying to help.
“People who genuinely care will take time to empathetically listen, and show support through actions, not words. Only you can decide who is worth giving time to.”
All feelings are valid and worth having and experiencing. Having a bad day is normal; feeling frustrated or down is something that happens to everyone, if they’re honest. Toxic positivity reflects more on the giver than the receiver: It’s OK to not be OK sometimes.