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Published on June 10, 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.

          The Ultimate Morning Routine to Make You Happy And Productive All Day Toxic Positivity: Why Being Positive Could Be Bad Sometimes What Am I Doing with My Life? Find Your Answer Here Feeling Off Track in Life? Here’s How To Stay True To Yourself 10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck

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          1 How to Live Your Best Life Starting Today 2 How to Not Take Things Personally for a Happier Life 3 How to Stop Being Passive and Start Getting What You Want 4 How to Fight Your Irrational Fears And Stay Strong 5 Feeling Frustrated in Life? 8 Ways to Get Back on Track

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          Last Updated on July 10, 2020

          How to Live Your Best Life Starting Today

          How to Live Your Best Life Starting Today

          As human beings, one of our deepest-rooted desires is to have a meaningful and happy existence. You’ve probably heard of the saying, “Live your best life.” It’s good advice.

          We all want to feel connected to both ourselves and others. We want to feel that we’re part of something important and that we’re making a difference in the world.

          We want to look back at our lives and our achievements and be proud. In short, we want what the saying says: to live our best lives.

          But what does it really mean to live your best life?

          You are a unique individual, so living your best life is exclusive to you. Your best life will reflect your true values. It will be made up of what makes you happy and will be colored by what making a difference means to you.

          What Stops You From Living Your Best Life?

          While living your best life is all about you, what other people think can have an impact on your quest to live your best life.

          Social media, for example, puts us under a lot of pressure. There are specific expectations of what “happy” looks like, and we’re under pressure to conform to what society expects.

          For example, we are pressured to look a certain way, wear the “right” clothes, have exciting adventures with eye-catching friends, eat ethical and healthy food, and do charity work.

          These are only a few of society’s expectations. It’s a long list.

          Social media claims to connect us, but often it can do the opposite.

          We can spend so much time worrying about what other people are doing, trying to live the life that society expects of us, that it can be easy to lose track of what makes us happy and what our best life actually looks like.

          Start the Journey

          What does it look like to live your best life? The following are some practical tips and tools to move from living your current life to living your best life.

          1. Be the Best Version of Yourself

          To live your best life, you must be the best version of yourself. Don’t try to be something or someone else. Don’t try to be what other people want you to be.

          Focus on who you want to be. Play to your strengths and be proud of what makes you different. You are brilliant.

          Gretchen Rubin, in her book Happiness Project, created her own commandments. The first one was “Be Gretchen.” This gave her permission to follow her gut feeling and make up her own rules.

          For example, she stopped forcing herself to enjoy parties, cocktails, and fashion just because that’s what she thought society expected.

          So, inspired by Gretchen, create your own commandment: “Be more YOU,” and remind yourself of this every day, unapologetically.

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          2. Observe Yourself

          To work out what the best you looks like, you must get to know yourself better. It’s your best life after all – not anyone else’s.

          Start to notice how you respond to various situations. What are your habits? What makes you happy? What frustrates you? How do you behave under pressure? What gives you energy? What drains you?

          Spend a week simply noticing. Write your observations down so you remember.

          3. Identify Your Bad Habits

          As part of your observations, start to notice your bad habits. Consider the things that don’t ultimately make you feel good.

          Does scrolling mindlessly through Instagram make you happy? For 5 minutes, perhaps, but for longer?

          That last glass of wine was delicious, but do you pay the price later?

          That chocolate was enjoyable at the moment, but now that the sugar high is over, are you feeling regretful?

          Observe yourself first. Then, start to deliberately do more of the things that make you happy and give you energy.

          At the same time, work on reducing then eliminating the habits that squander your time, drain your energy, and ultimately don’t make you happy.

          Need help conquering your bad habits? Read How to Break Bad Habits Once and For All.

          4. Set Intentions

          After having thought about what makes you happy and what drains your energy, focus on what living the best life looks like for you.

          One of the keys to this is being intentional about it. When you deliberately set intentions, you are more likely to act with purpose and drive.

          Setting intentions is different from setting goals. Goals are your list of things you want to achieve. You can set them daily, monthly, yearly, or a combination.

          A common practice is to define goals and write them down. This makes them more tangible and makes you more accountable, therefore, making the goals more likely to happen.

          The subtle yet important difference between goals and intentions is that when setting intentions, you decide what kind of positive feelings and emotions you are seeking.

          For example, “This week, my intention is to approach my admin tasks with gusto in order to complete them more quickly.”

          Intentions can be more motivating than goals because if you don’t achieve your goal, it can feel like a failure and can ultimately hold you back.

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          If you don’t achieve your intention to approach something in a specific way, you can more easily regroup and have another try.

          Write down your intentions every month, week, or day, using whichever time frame works best for you.

          For example, “I intend to enjoy going swimming three times this week” or “I intend to assertively build my network in my local area this month.”

          Setting intentions gives you something to focus on, and it also helps to manage the feeling of being overwhelmed that often happens when we set ourselves goals.

          5. Visualize Living Your Best Life

          Visualization can help you to cement your intentions. It involves visualizing how it would feel to live your best life once you achieve it.

          It can help you to further establish what you want and allow you to settle into a positive mindset.

          To visualize, first choose your focus. Choose a specific intention and how you will feel once it is accomplished. Then, take the time to daydream and allow your imagination to wander.

          For example, if your intention is going swimming three times a week, imagine what you will look and feel like:

          • What will you wear?
          • How do you get there?
          • What time of day do you go?
          • How do you feel when you’re in the water?
          • How do you feel afterward?

          Ask yourself these little questions and allow yourself to feel the same feelings you would feel if you were currently fulfilling your intention.

          10 Ways to Live Your Best Life

          Now that you’ve decided and visualized what your best life looks like, let’s look at some more practical steps you can take to achieve it.

          1. Focus

          Whatever you do, focus. If you swim, swim. If you study, study. Multitasking is a myth. It’s not possible to do more than one thing at a time well. Focused work is the least tiresome and the most productive type of work.

          Michael LeBouf, the author of The Millionaire in You, said,

          “Winners focus, losers spray.”

          2. Take Responsibility for Taking Action

          Taking action can feel scary. We fear failure, but we can also fear success. It can be easy to feel too busy to achieve your intentions.

          However, you have the choice to take action and live your best life or stay the same. It’s up to you, so take responsibility to take action.

          3. Live in the Present

          Every day is a new opportunity to live your best life. We so often get stuck because we put things off.

          We can think, “When I’ve lost 10 lbs I’ll go swimming,” or “When I feel more confident I’ll look for a new job,” or “When I get my new running shoes I’ll start running.”

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          How about starting from where you are? How about using what you already have?

          We often put off taking action until we have the newest phone/camera/game/course/book/shoes as if they are the keys to happiness. In the process, we forget about what we already have.

          Grab the camera that you have, put on your old running shoes. Go and do something interesting today with what you’ve got. Fancier gadgets, better clothes, or a slimmer body won’t make you better.

          Action will.

          4. Declutter

          This applies to the environment you live in as well as the people you spend time with. Use Marie Kondo’s decluttering method of asking, “Does it bring you joy?”[1]

          If your answer is yes, you keep the item. If you hesitate or say no, you donate it or throw it out. Simple.

          This also applies to people. If there are people in your life that make you feel bad, drain your energy, and don’t bring you joy, let go of them.

          Instead, spend time with the people and activities that give you energy and make you feel good.

          5. Relish the Simple Things

          When we’re busy, we can forget to appreciate what we have. Take time to focus on the simple things. Even when you’re feeling low, there’s always something to be grateful for.

          In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.[2] Be deliberate in being grateful for what you do have, rather than resentful of what you don’t.

          6. Journaling

          Journaling

          is simply writing your thoughts down.

          According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper not only helps you get your thoughts in order, but it can also help ease symptoms of depression and manage stress and anxiety.[3]

          In the chaos of life, it is easy to overthink, feel anxious, or not appreciate what you do have. Journaling can help you manage your thoughts and feelings and productively cope with life.

          Be curious and keep learning. Ask more questions and keep pushing yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and learn.

          What are you interested in or curious about? Perhaps it’s learning more about where you live, or reading up on a particular topic? Maybe it’s traveling to a new town or country?

          According to Dan Pink’s research, learning is a key motivator.[4] Whether you feel like you’ve gotten stuck in a boring routine or you’re stressed by the tasks of daily life, learning something new is a way to step outside yourself and your comfort zone.

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          Create a bucket list of all the things you’d like to do and learn and the places you’d like to go to, and start ticking them off.

          7. Make Someone’s Day

          Being kind to others makes them feel good, and it also releases chemicals in your body that make you feel good. Think about a time you gave someone a gift that they loved. How did you feel?

          You don’t have to start giving people gifts to make someone’s day. Think about small, thoughtful gestures: a genuine compliment, opening the door, offering to help someone.

          All these things can make a big difference in someone’s day.

          8. Look After Your Body

          Eat what nourishes you, including plenty of vegetables and fruit and food that’s natural and unprocessed. Drink plenty of water.

          Exercise because you like it, not because you’re supposed to go to the gym.

          Reject the idea that you have to push yourself really hard at exercise, and instead try out a variety of things – for example, walking the dog, gardening, yoga, swimming, or dancing.

          Find what you enjoy. When you enjoy something, you’ll be motivated to do it more.

          Get good rest! We’re all different in terms of the amount of sleep that we need. However, most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep.

          If you’re not getting that much, then check out healthy sleep tips from the Sleep Foundation.[5]

          More tips for staying healthy: Powerful Daily Routine Examples for a Healthy and High-Achieving You.

          9. Manage Your Inner Critic

          Most people have an inner critic that tells them they are not good enough, that they’re a fraud, and that they are going to be found out.

          This happens especially when we step out of our comfort zone and change things. If you are living your best life, your inner critic likes to jeopardize that.

          The next time it appears, acknowledge what’s happening and call it out. Whatever it is telling you, list all the reasons it’s wrong.

          10. Be Prepared to Change the Plan

          You may have set intentions to live your best life. However, life is not linear, nor does it work in lists. You must expect to be flexible and change the plan as life throws things at you.

          The end game remains the same: to live your best life. It’s just the route to get there that will inevitably change.

          Conclusion

          Live each day like it counts, and remember, it’s your choice. Your best life is unique to you. Don’t compare yourself to others – focus on living your best life, and enjoy the learning, exploration, and experiences along the way.

          More Tips on How You Can Live Your Best Life

          Featured photo credit: Juliana Malta via unsplash.com

          Reference

          [1] Kon Mari: Tidy your space, transform your life
          [2] Harvard Health Publishing: In Praise of Gratitude
          [3] University of Rochester Medical Center: Journaling for Mental Health
          [4] Daniel H. Pink: Dan Pink on Motivation
          [5] Sleep Foundation: Healthy Sleep Tips

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