Toxic Positivity - allowing negative emotions has much to teach us
Updated: May 27
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how sad or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "good vibes only" approach to life. The concept stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative.
The Impact of Toxic Positivity
When someone is talking to us about negative feelings, we can think it is helpful to encourage them in times of distress. However, toxic positivity can disregard an individual’s true, legitimate emotions and make individuals feel invalidated, unseen and unheard. There is often great pressure and expectation to always be positive during a crisis to minimise feelings of awkwardness.
If we choose to suppress certain emotions, they may later manifest as anxiety, mental breakdowns, and depression in the long run. It’s okay to be sad when you’re sad, angry when you’re angry and happy when genuinely happy.
Toxicity is when real feelings are masked, and you hide your authentic response to a sad occasion. At Clarity Counselling, we often see clients struggling to express their feelings because they are being denied by shame, embarrassment or guilt.
Examples of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is the suppression of negative emotions through phrases like:
“Be positive!”, “Cheer up!” or “Look on the bright side!”
“Get over it” or “Move on.”
“It’s all going to be okay” or “Everything is going to work out.”
“Be a man” or “Tough it out.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It could be worse.” or “At least ____ didn’t happen.”
“Don’t worry/stress/get upset about it.”
“Stop being negative” or “Think happy thoughts!”
As counsellors, our role is to help you explore these emotions and work out why you may be feeling like you do. We will work with you on strategies to look after yourself and acknowledge things are hard for you right now. As therapists, we are in a neutral position to talk through all these feelings in a non-judgemental way.
How to Deal With Toxic Positivity
Tip #1 - Manage your negative emotions, don't deny them.
Talking through negative emotions can provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life. If you think you are experiencing negative emotions, our counsellors in Manly can help you recognise and talk through these emotions.
Tip #2 - Be realistic about what you should feel
When you are facing a stressful situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Focus on self-care and taking steps that can help improve your situation.
Being positive, says Goodman, has become “a goal and an obligation”
Goodman’s book, Toxic Positivity, expands on this thinking, critiquing a culture that has programmed us to believe that optimism is always best.
Tip #3 - It’s okay to feel more than one thing
If you face a challenge, it’s possible to feel nervous about the future and hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions are as complex as the situation itself, which is why with the help of our counsellors, we can work on unpacking each emotion and gaining some clarity.
Tip #4 - Focus on listening to others and showing support
When someone expresses a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with positive stories or share inspirational quotes. Instead, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and that you are there to listen.
“At its core, toxic positivity is a form of gaslighting,” Goodman
Tip #5 - Notice how you feel
Following “positive” social media accounts can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration but pay attention to how you feel during and after looking at the content. If you are left with a sense of shame or guilt after seeing “uplifting” posts, it might be due to toxic positivity. It can be a good idea to consider limiting your social media consumption.
Helen Russell’s podcast How To Be Sad provides further insight into toxic negativity, which can be listened to in conjunction with counselling. In light of the pandemic and now the conflict in Ukraine, strong negative emotions – fear, anxiety and sadness – are a natural response to what’s happening around the world right now. We shouldn’t deny how we feel about them or other situations in our personal lives.
How we can help
Do you quickly victimise yourself by resenting others who don’t listen to you? Or do you try to rescue others by offering advice that is not always welcomed? Counselling allows you to gain insight into your blind spots to enjoy more effective relations with others.
Leaning into negative thoughts should ultimately leave you with a sense of fulfilment. At Clarity Counselling Northern Beaches, we want our clients to be able to enjoy the full range of emotions in a healthy environment. With our assistance and experience, we can provide you with the knowledge that you can do it in a methodical way. If you’ve tried to talk about your feelings with friends or family, but they don’t understand, or you need further help, then we are available in person at our Manly counselling clinic.