How Toxic Positivity is Counterproductive

Toxic positivity can be attributed to “insincere” positivity which is detrimental to someone’s mental well-being. 

It is “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset”, as Dr. Jaime Zuckerman phrased it. Examples of toxic positivity in daily phrases can include: “it could be worse”, “everything will be fine”, “look at the bright side”, and “just be happy.”

Optimism can be considered an “attractive behavior in people that makes them seem more well-adapted” said Dr. Stephanie Preston, who specializes in empathy, altruism, and the way emotions affect behavior. As per the research of Dr. Preston and Dr. Carolyn Karoll, optimism can lead to an issue when people begin to invalidate the range of emotions they experience or a problem they have encountered. Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, also states that in doing so it is not only counterproductive but “it can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distressed, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.”

As Dr. Zukerman says, toxic positivity can constitute consciously or unconsciously as an avoidance strategy “used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort” which can, in turn, lead to disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.

This topic is especially integral to discuss in a time where hardships during the pandemic are even more prevalent. A survey conducted in June 2020 showed that 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. In a time where people are more susceptible to a mental health condition, people must not get persuaded by forms of toxic positivity in their aspirations for recovery.

Social media is unknowingly flooded with toxic positivity — people are embraced by quotes such as “pursue a hobby” and “you have so much time, make use of it.” These notions are valuable ways for people to be engaged in their community and stay connected with themselves and their passions during the pandemic. However,  “putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment for many during this global pandemic,” as Dr. Karoll states. 

Being productive can be constituted as something important to consider during the pandemic, but let this not hinder people from validating their emotions and finding the support they need with it.

To refrain from a mindset that is regulated often by toxic positivity, people must first understand the gravity of the situation of their lives during the pandemic and realize that this pandemic naturally causes interferences in people’s schedules and lives, thus amounting to stress at times. People must learn to stay in tune with their emotions and reflect on their current state of mind. If a person realizes that they are not able to cope or adapt to the current situation, they should understand that this is natural and that they have the right to be upset.

It is equally important that people fully-heartedly experience their emotions, and then take measures to support themselves during this time. Connecting with mental health resources, therapists, and integrating small habits to consider their mental health is optimal.

As per a UCLA study, writing things down can “be putting feelings into words [and] reduce the intensity of emotions such as sadness, anger, and pain.” This is just one method for people to fully decipher their emotions and find an outlet for them.

In order to support other people during this pandemic as well, Dr. Gayani DeSilva states that “it’s [..] healthier to acknowledge the pain a person might be experiencing. Ask what they need. It’s possible to exude a positive attitude and still interact with others in a caring way. That’s when positivity is not toxic.”

Our word choices and thought patterns can greatly affect our approach in supporting others. Instead of using phrases such as “it can be worse”, people should try saying something along the lines of “I know things are currently difficult right now for you, what are some positive things that you can surround yourself with?”  Instead of saying “just be happy”, say “it’s okay if you can’t be happy right now, that’s normal and part of life. Do you need to talk about it? What are some things you can turn to that will help you feel better?” These small changes in our wording choices validate and fully experience their emotions, and then reflect on it and work towards a solution, opposed to simply suppressing what they feel. 

When these steps are acknowledged in a person’s path to rehabilitation, a person without the hindrance of toxic positivity can truly digest their experiences, and grow from them.