Toxic positivity and the neglect of human emotion

By Tegan, 19, Exeter, UK

How can something positive become toxic?

At face value, the phrase ‘toxic positivity’ appears absurd. How can something positive be toxic? Indeed, having an optimistic outlook on life has been proven to help those struggling with mental health issues. Yet, any good thing in excess can be bad. Positivity is not exempt from this. When pushed to an extreme it is not only damaging, but toxic.

The core belief of toxic positivity is that in spite of adversity, a person must be positive. It is intense positivity to a point that it neglects the mental health of the person concerned. The demand for optimism irrespective of a person’s feelings completely dismisses the spectrum of human emotion, and can have destructive impacts for those who are struggling.

The forms of toxic positivity.

This harmful form of positivity is mainly expressed through language. An example of this could be when a person has experienced the death of a family member, and is told that ‘everything happens for a reason’ or that they should ‘focus on the good’. Another instance could be through brushing off someone’s anxieties by saying ‘it could be worse’. Though these statements are generally well-intentioned, they entirely disregard a person’s emotional wellbeing.

Not only can toxic positivity be enforced externally, but internally also. Many people use self-inflicted toxic positivity as a coping mechanism to deal with overwhelming emotions. They believe that their own feelings are not valid, and try to ignore these emotions by concentrating solely on the positive. This is just as damaging as toxic positivity perpetuated by others.

The effects of toxic positivity

The effects of toxic positivity are incredibly harmful. Toxic positivity ignores real harm that a person may be facing. It downplays a potentially serious situation someone is going through, and sets aside their emotions. This can make people feel humiliated about very real feelings, at a time when they are already going through so much.

Moreover, toxic positivity strips an individual of an opportunity to seek help, allowing crucial conversations about emotions to be avoided. As discussions about feelings are shut down, mental health becomes a forbidden subject. This enables the stigma surrounding mental health to be aggravated. People may begin to feel ashamed of their feelings, and are deterred from getting help. This is especially true for young people, whose mental health is often dismissed. Young people are frequently told that their mental health issues are not valid through the lens of toxic positivity. Statements like ‘others have it worse’ and ‘what have you got to be upset about?’ are all too familiar for young people who have attempted to speak openly about intense negative emotions.

The rise of this dangerous rhetoric has also coincided with the rise of social media. Phrases like ‘good vibes only’ and ‘be positive’ have been populated by outlets such as Instagram, and are seen as ‘motivational’. Consequently, these phrases have found their way onto T-shirts and even the furniture that decorates our very homes. They have become a part of our everyday language. Though seemingly harmless, the demand for positivity is ultimately inescapable. It is a constant reminder to ‘choose’ happiness over negative emotions; as if happiness is a choice. Modern society has set an unrealistic standard of positivity that is impossible to maintain. It is not normal, or natural, for a human being to only experience happiness.

Toxic positivity also sorts emotions into categories, good and bad. This classification is considerably disadvantageous. No emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Though some emotions are undoubtedly more challenging than others, these emotions still serve a function. Anxiety can warn a person about a potentially dangerous situation, while sadness is a normal response signalling loss. All emotions are authentically human and cannot be dismissed or ignored in the way that toxic positivity calls for.

How to avoid toxic positivity.

If you have been affected by toxic positivity, or have an opportunity to help a person who is struggling, there are things you can do in order to be more supportive to yourself and others.

To avoid self-inflicted toxic positivity, it is important to be realistic about how you should feel. Recognise that negative emotions are normal, and that it is ok to not be happy all the time. Try and seek support from people you trust that would not try and judge you for how you feel.

To avoid enforcing toxic positivity on others, offer validation and support. Simple phrases like ‘I’m here for you’ and ‘It’s ok to feel like this’ can be so reassuring to someone who is struggling. Showing empathy in ways such as this acknowledges a person’s feelings. It can help them feel understood and listened to. Although supporting a person may not resolve their issue, it can help them feel uplifted and validated. As a result, people are encouraged to speak openly about their feelings, and are more comfortable with accepting these negative emotions.

Ultimately, negative emotions are part of the human experience. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, and to accept their existence. Toxic positivity is an unnatural reaction to the many difficulties that occur in life. A move away from this inhuman response to emotion would be beneficial for so many that continue to suffer in silence.

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