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Last Updated on December 4, 2020

Toxic Positivity: Why Being Positive Could Be Bad Sometimes

Toxic Positivity: Why Being Positive Could Be Bad Sometimes

Think back to a time when you experienced emotional disappointment or shock – perhaps a loss of a job, an illness or diagnosis for yourself or a family member, an accident, breakup, or life-changing bad news.

Remember the frustration, hurt, sadness, anxiety, fear, or worry you felt.

As you reflect, do you remember a well-meaning friend or family member trying to pep you up with positivity and hope?

Perhaps you were met with, “Everything happens for a reason”, “This too shall pass” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Maybe they said, “It’s going to be okay”, “You’ll get through this” or “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else”. Or, maybe they tried to make you feel better by sharing, “I know someone who had that same type of [insert diagnosis] and they’re doing great now”, “Never Give up” or my favorite, “It could be worse”.

How did you feel? What was your reaction? Did their positivity and optimism make you feel better? Did it make you feel loved and understood? Or did you feel upset, invalidated, unheard?

That is toxic positivity.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic Positivity can be defined as:

    Here are some examples of toxic positivity:
    • Ignoring, hiding, downplaying, or dismissing your emotions or real feelings.
    • Feeling bad, guilty, or shameful for how you feel.
    • Putting on a “game face” to the world when you feel differently inside.
    • Pretending everything is okay when it’s not.
    • Minimizing others’ emotions.
    • Shaming people for having negative emotions.
    • Invalidating someone’s experience by not acknowledging the real issue/pain/frustration.
    • Minimizing someone’s pain with quotes and perspective.

    While I’m a big supporter of positive psychology[1] – and we all know the many benefits of positivity and optimism – there are times when these traits are not only unhelpful but can be destructive and harmful.

    Positivity is not positive when it denies, invalidates, or minimizes authentic human emotions.

    Optimism is not helpful when it makes people feel shame, guilt, or invalidated for feeling a certain way.

    Hope is not useful when it does not allow for the natural rise and fall of emotions or when it ignores the gravity of a situation.

    Stoicism is not brave or courageous when it forces you to stuff down your real, true emotions and be inauthentic and incongruent with what you really feel.

    Perspective is not supportive when it marginalizes your experience.

    During this crazy pandemic, people are feeling scared, confused, fearful, overwhelmed, sad, and angry. As a result, many try to put things into perspective by saying, “At least you have a roof over your head, food to eat, loved ones,” or, my favorite, “It could be worse”.

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    Yes, it could be worse and it still feels really bad to those in the middle of it. People try to bring hope to the situation by reminding us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Sir Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity in quarantine.

    Good for them. But did they—like many friends I have talked with—have kids they were trying to homeschool while working full time and a husband who lost his income? I thinketh not.

    We often brush people’s problems off by saying, “Yeah, sounds rough. First World Problems!” But those problems, while first-world (and I’m not denying or minimizing there are much worse situations) are still REAL to whoever is experiencing them. Deeming them “First World Problems” only makes people feel worse, guilty, and shameful.

    In the book, There’s No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, they share research that states,

    “Unbridled positivity in an experience of failure or distress makes people feel worse, not better.”

    I’m Guilty

    I’ll admit it. I grew up in a positive, supportive, encouraging family. My parents were always imparting words of wisdom and perspective in every situation. They are positive, upbeat, entrepreneurs who move forward quickly when things get them down.

    Whether by nature or nurture, or both, I grew up to be a positive and optimistic person myself. I see the bright side of everything.

    Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I have a wealth of stories, metaphors, and yes, quotes in my back pocket for any situation that may have you down. That is not to say I haven’t had my fair share of hardships, grief, and loss. I have. But I always try to see the upside.

    I’ve learned over the course of my life and career that while some people love the hope and optimism I bring to most situations, there is a time and place for positivity and more importantly, a time and place for compassion, acknowledgment, and validation.

    Alternatives to Toxic Positivity

    Acknowledging and Validating Other’s Feelings and Emotions Goes a Long Way

    Often, all someone wants and needs is the acknowledgment and validation of their feelings. We all want to feel heard and seen. We don’t want someone to tell us how to feel or not feel or how it “isn’t that bad.”

    But First, You Must Acknowledge Your Own

    When you don’t face your own emotions, they will always rise back up.

    What the mind conceals the body reveals.

    When you try to hide, push down, or ignore your emotions and feelings, they don’t just go away. They go deep within you. They eat at you. They cause ulcers, back pain, sickness. That “sudden” heart attack, “unexplained” high blood pressure, or “confounding” anxiety may not be so inexplicable after all.

    Believe me; I learned this the hard way.

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    You need to acknowledge and feel your emotions. It’s okay to not be okay—to be angry, tired, scared, or frustrated. When you feel your emotions, it provides release and prevents those feelings from eating away underneath the surface. In fact, there are many benefits to experiencing negative emotions.

    In a study on emotional acceptance, Iris Mauss, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, found that “people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health.”[2]

    That doesn’t mean you need to wallow in your negative emotions. Once you acknowledge and accept, they can surface and pass.

    Body Worker Dr. Ruth Ziemba once told me, “Feel your feelings but don’t let them become you.” This has stuck with me for years. Instead of “I am sad,” I can acknowledge “I am feeling sad.” I don’t have to get stuck in that state.

      Empathy and Compassion Are Almost Always the Right Response

      Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, or the ability to put yourself in their shoes. A simple, “That sounds really hard,” or “I’m sorry you’re going through that” goes a lot further than unchecked optimism.

      The same goes for compassion. Compassion—from the roots passion (suffering) and com (with)—means to suffer with another. Compassion is an innate part of human response to suffering, which is comprised of a three-part experience of noticing another’s pain, feeling with another, and responding in some way.[3]

      The key here is to notice their pain, feel with them, and respond in a way that works for their needs and situation.

      Vulnerability Builds Rapport

      I remember doing a leadership workshop early in my career. We came to a session where the participants were providing feedback to each other about their leadership style. It was my turn to receive feedback, and I’ll never forget what happened. I remember every detail like it was yesterday.

      Lauren, a thoughtful, confident, blonde, pretty, and likable leadership coach faced me and said, “I feel like I can’t connect with you as everything is always so positive.”

      I looked around as the rest of the room nodded and voiced their agreement. I was shocked. And then I was angry. Instead of taking it in, I went on the defensive. Turns out I had missed her point completely.

      It wasn’t that I had to bare my soul or walk around sad, frustrated, or angry all the time; they just wanted to see all of me, and they felt they hadn’t. That made me less relatable and connected. I brushed this off and moved on. That must be their issue. But it wasn’t.

      I received this feedback many times over the course of my career. My positivity and optimism (while real and genuine and mostly helpful) made me unrelatable at times. People liked being around me because of these traits, but it could leave them feeling like they were never fully connected.

      Later in my career, a mentor of mine shared that “vulnerability builds rapport.” It’s true. It does.

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      When people see all of you, they get to know you. They feel closer, more connected, and accepted. I learned that I needed to be more open with my struggles and challenges.

      In addition, when others face things that were stressful, upsetting, or downright painful, I needed to be more sensitive, thoughtful, and not hand out my suggestions for how to fix it, words of wisdom, or positive quotes, at least not right away.

      Timing Is Everything

      I want to be clear. This is not to say you can’t be positive, share your experiences, hope, and optimism with others. That optimism and hope might be just what someone needs. Just remember, there is a time and place for everything.

      When your best friend just told you that her boyfriend left her unexpectedly, telling her, “You’ll find someone better” or “I never liked him anyway” is not going to be helpful. Instead, ask her how she is, sit and talk with her, bring her some ice cream.

      Allow her to feel her emotions. Then, as the wounds start to heal, let her know how great she is, that you know she will find someone, and then offer inspiration, optimism, and positivity.

      People will often look back at a situation and be able to see the upsides, learn the lesson, and realize everything did happen for a reason but . . .

      It’s difficult to see the rainbow when you’re in the middle of a storm.

      Reach for the Next Best Emotion

      In many spiritual fields, people refer to an emotional frequency scale, ranging from shame at the bottom to enlightenment at the top. Many spiritual teachers speak about reaching for the “next best emotion.”

      If you are feeling fear, it’s very difficult to leap from that frequency all the way to joy because someone provides perspective or positivity. Instead, you can work your way up the ladder. If you can move from fear to courage, you can move to acceptance and ultimately to love, joy, and peace.

      So, when you’re supporting someone (or yourself), don’t expect to go from depressed to happy in one fell swoop. It’s helpful to take baby steps up the emotional ladder, and as long as you are making progress, you’re on the right track.

        Just Listen

        Often, we force optimism because we don’t know what to say to a given situation. Someone we love is hurting, and we want them to feel better.

        Often, we are uncomfortable in the negative emotions (yep, that’s me) so you want to fix it. You want to do something—anything to make them feel better. Remember, that listening IS something. Listen to understand what’s going on. Hold space for them to openly share without the fear of judgment, criticism, or shame.

        When you take the time to listen, you can truly understand how someone feels about a situation. And when you truly understand how they feel, you will be better prepared to respond when the time and place are right.

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        Follow Their Lead

        When someone shares something that is going on for them, follow their lead. If they lead with their frustration and disappointment, allow them to go down that path. If they start down the path of optimism and hope, jump on that train with them.

        A few years ago, I was at a party when a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while told me she was getting divorced. My response of, “I’m so sorry” was met with, “No, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me! I’m so relieved and so happy to be moving forward with my life. We’re both in a really good place.”

        Find out where they are and ride their wavelength, not your own.

        Just Be There

        Often, we respond with unhelpful positivity or optimism because we don’t know what else TO DO.

        Hope is real, and so is pain. When someone is hurting, they often don’t need or want anything from you. They just want to know you’re there for themwhen they’re happy or when they’re not, in the good and the bad.

        Be kind. Be compassionate. Validate their feelings. Let them know you’re there for them.

        Real Vibes Only

        It’s time to replace your “Positive Vibes Only” or “Good Vibes Only” sign with “Real Vibes Only”.

        In the end, it’s not about being positive or negative, optimistic, pessimistic, or anything in between. It’s about being real and authentic.

        I will always be a silver lining, see the good in everything type of person. That’s just who I am. I am proud of being optimistic and positive. I do believe everything happens for a reason and that it will all be good in the end. If it’s not good, it’s not the end.

        However, I have learned that there is a time and place for everything. Including acknowledgment, validation, and compassion so we can all heal and move forward. Because toxic positivity is not really all that positive after all.

          Tips on Avoiding Toxicity

          Featured photo credit: yns plt via unsplash.com

          Reference

          More by this author

          Tracy Kennedy

          Lifehack's Personal Development Expert, a results-driven coach dedicated to helping people achieve greater levels of happiness and success.

          How to Build Self Discipline to Excel in Life 10 Powerful Ways to Be More Confident 10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck Why Negative Emotions Aren’t That Bad (And How to Handle Them) How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation to Calm Your Thoughts

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          Last Updated on March 2, 2021

          10 Negative Thoughts We All Have and What to Think Instead

          10 Negative Thoughts We All Have and What to Think Instead

          I’ll never forget the first time I heard that the way I was talking to myself, realizing how it directly influenced every aspect of my life. We can be our own worst enemy at times and our internal conversation and negative thoughts can be extremely limiting. Like most people, I was blind to this somewhat obvious piece of information.

          Eventually, I realized that the negative thoughts I had weren’t facts at all, but instead self imposed limitations that I was putting on myself, which I also had the power to remove. Over the last decade, it has become very clear to me that most of us actually have very similar negative thoughts. Here are some of the most common negative thoughts we all have and what we should think instead.

          1. I Am Not Good Enough

          Have you ever thought that you weren’t good enough? When we feel that we aren’t good enough, we tend to drown in this emotion of self-doubt and pity. It can be a symptom of low self-esteem, but the truth is that every one is good enough.

          You might not have the skills or tools to achieve what you want now, but you are certainly good enough and worthy of receiving what you want in life. If you have a $10 bill, and it falls on the ground into a puddle of mud, does that $10 lose its value? Of course not! So why do you feel that you lose value based on what you have done in life?

          What to Think Instead

          Instead of saying, “I am not good enough,” tell yourself that you are worthy of all you desire in this life, just like everyone else[1]. Focus on the things you like about yourself in this moment. You can even make a written list and post it nearby if it helps you to see it each day[2]

          Practice Loving Yourself to Overcome Negative Thoughts

            2. I Can’t Do It

            “Can’t” is one of the most limiting words that you can tell yourself. Henry Ford once said,

            “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.”

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            If you tell yourself that you can’t, you are sending messages to your mind and brain that you can’t, and so that will be your experience. Your mind won’t try if you have already told it that something is impossible. 

            What to Think Instead

            Instead of focusing your negative thoughts on what you think you can’t do, tell yourself, “I can do whatever I put my mind to.” While we all do have limitations, believing in your abilities in the first step to achieving your short and long term goals in life. 

            And sometimes, you may just need a little motivation boost. Get the Instant Motivation Boost Worksheet, it’s a free worksheet that will guide you to do the little things for an instant boost of motivation. Grab the free worksheet here.

            3. I’m Not as Lucky as Other People

            This thought normally comes from holding an illusion that other people’s lives are better and they are luckier, and that is what separates you from them. “Perfect” doesn’t exist, and there is often a lot of effort that goes behind that perceived “luck.”

            It is very disempowering to think that life will never offer you good things; the truth is that if you tap into some gratitude, you’ll see that you already have good things all around you. 

            What to Think Instead

            Instead of focusing on all the luck others seem to have, tell yourself, “Good things can and will happen to me.” Use a sense of gratitude to begin to notice all of the good things you would normally never notice. For example, when was the last time you felt grateful for the roof over your head, the food in your fridge, or your comfy bed?

            4. I Don’t Think I’ll Ever…

            Whatever you believe will become your reality, this is true. You shape your future every day by the choices you make and your habits. You can sabotage your opportunities by limiting yourself with negative thoughts.

            What would it be like if you believed that you could do what you really desired and have the experiences you wished instead? It is not about getting it right the first time, but trying. Don’t stop yourself before you have even given yourself a chance.

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            What to Think Instead

            Don’t limit yourself with negative thought patterns that tell you you’ll never do something. Instead, tell yourself, “I am confident I will…” Even if you don’t feel confident in this moment, feeding your brain positive thoughts will slowly build confidence over time. 

            5. I Should Be Better Than I Am

            Using the word “should” in this context makes this a truly negative thought and makes one feel less than they are. How often do you find yourself saying “I should be more clever, more disciplined, more productive, etc. than I am”? Remember how you feel immediately afterwards?

            What to Think Instead

            Tell yourself, “I am making an effort to change what I don’t like.” Everyone has parts of themselves that they hope to improve, and this is certainly possible, but it requires approaching these things with a sense of self-love and patience. 

            Set yourself goals for the things you are not happy with instead of telling yourself what you “should” be like or be doing. Take action the things you wish to change and remove limiting modals from your vocabulary.

            Here are some ways you can start to improve yourself.

            6. I Am Not Strong Enough

            It’s normal to feel that you are not strong enough at times[3]. We are all human, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel weak at times. What is important though, is the conversation you have with yourself afterwards. If you keep reinforcing the fact that you don’t feel strong with negative thoughts, how can you expect to feel?

            What to Think Instead

            Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, tell yourself that you are strong enough to deal with the challenges in front of you, and support yourself in finding the strength you need in that moment.

            7. Nobody Cares

            It might feel that you are alone at times and that nobody cares, but I am convinced that there are people thinking about you that you don’t even know of. People do care; not everyone expresses their emotions in the same way. It isn’t nice feeling that nobody cares, so stop focusing on that and assuming what other people feel when you don’t actually know. Change your focus to something that makes you feel better instead.

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            What to Think Instead

            Instead of assuming that no one cares about you, remind yourself that there are people in your life who do, in fact, care very much. Do your best to cultivate those relationships and accept the love others are willing to give in order to combat your negative thoughts. 

            8. I Am Not Smart Enough

            This is a very general statement, yet many people tend to say it often and then feel bad about themselves afterwards. What are you not smart at specifically? I bet that if I asked you to identify some areas that you are smart in, you could if you really tried.

            Not everybody is clever and perfect in every area, and this is what makes us all unique. If you feel that you are lacking in a certain area of knowledge, instead of producing negative thoughts, make time to study and learn whatever it is that you want so that you don’t feel this way any more.

            What to Think Instead

            Instead of believing that you’re not intelligent, remind yourself that you are smart in a unique way and that you are capable of improving your knowledge in any area you choose. Lifelong learning can be a goal you constantly work toward.

            9. If I Don’t Do Well, I’m a Failure

            Holding high expectations for yourself and having conditions attached to your self worth on your performance isn’t fair. You need to take chances in life if you want to get different results. Don’t be scared of failing; the real failure lies in never having tried.

            What to Think Instead

            When facing a challenging situation or possible risk, tell yourself, “I am going to try; I am not scared of failing; that is not what is important.” Even if you “fail,” you will learn something about the world and yourself, and as long as that’s the case, nothing is ever a true failure. 

            10. Bad Things Will Happen

            Thinking negatively in general is thinking that whatever happens, it is most likely going to be the worst case scenario. What would it be like if you imagined the best case scenario instead? Our positive and negative thoughts are very powerful, and it’s common to use visualization as a technique to imagine the best case scenario.

            Whether you imagine the worst or the best case scenario, you are influencing your results. Stop focusing on what you don’t want to happen and rather on what you want to happen.

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            What to Think Instead

            Instead of thinking that bad things will happen when you try something, try thinking that the best will happen. This way, you’ll aim high, and even if you fall a little short, you’ll still get farther than you were before. 

            Final Thoughts

            We all have negative thoughts from time to time. However, when the majority of your thoughts are negative, you are undermining your happiness at the end of the day. Our thoughts directly affect how we feel and, therefore, what we do in life.

            If you’re feeling sad and are overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you can consider contacting a mental health professional to give your mental health a boost and get you back on track toward positivity.

            Don’t limit yourself or what is possible for you. Master your thoughts and change your results. 

            More on How to Stop Negative Thoughts

             

            Featured photo credit: arash payam via unsplash.com

            Reference

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