scrap book page with pressed flowers and photo of a hug and title toxic positivity

Toxic Positivity: Not the Comfort We Think it is.

Almost everyone has dealt with toxic positivity in one way or another. Unfortunately, most of us have also dealt out our fair share of it unintentionally. In these situations, we think we’re helping, but in reality, we’re doing more harm than good. There are two types of toxic positivity that I want to address. The first is usually seen as an attempt to comfort, while the second is usually to motivate. The reason I want to address both of these is not only so that we can try to stop ourselves from contributing to it, but also so that when we come across, we are aware and able to have a little more control over how it affects us. Today I’m going to focus on the comfort side, and next week I’ll be back to talk about the motivation side.

Toxic Positivity as an attempt to comfort

One of the most damaging things we can say to someone who is going through trauma or something painful is ‘Just think positive’ or something along those lines. While we might think that this is good advice, what it actually does is dismiss the feelings that the person is having. We’re telling them that their feelings aren’t valid and that they’re not allowed to feel sad or hurt or stressed or whatever it is that they’re feeling. It might not seem like much, but words can have a huge effect.

Some examples I see often of this type of toxic positivity are:

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Just focus on the positive.
  • It’s not that bad.
  • It could always be worse.
  • You’re okay.

Again, these things are often said with positive intentions. Like when someone wants to help, but doesn’t know what to say. But when you’re going through something, the last thing you want to hear is that you shouldn’t be feeling it. This sort of toxic positivity can make someone feel like it’s their fault that they’re hurting. Like they should be able to just choose not to feel it, or like they’re being dramatic. And so saying something like one of the above statements to someone who has opened up to you is actually more dismissive than helpful.

All feelings are valid.

Negative emotions exist for a reason. Things like grief, trauma, stress, and pain don’t just go away because you try to focus on something else. If anything, burying those feelings and thoughts or pushing them away can make the healing process longer because you’re not dealing with them. Some people bottle up the emotions until it becomes too much and they snap, while others unknowingly let them control future thoughts, feelings and decisions. The only way to get past many of these issues is to move through them.

Support without the toxic positivity

It can be hard to know what to say when someone expresses negative emotions or feelings to you. In these cases, there are a few options that I find to be very helpful. One of the first is to just listen. Be a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on rather than trying to fix the situation. Another is to make it clear that you are there for them and that they’re feelings are valid. Just knowing that they’re not alone could make the world of difference. If you’re not sure what would be the most helpful, you can always ask. For example: What would you like from me? (Tone is important here.) Are you looking to vent or to brainstorm possible solutions? What type of support do you need?

When you’re the one being handed toxic positivity…

It’s absolutely okay to say something like “I disagree” or “that’s not helpful to me right now.” Some other options are “that might work for you, but I have to handle it differently” or “This is what I need right now.” If you’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or making someone uncomfortable, you can try “I appreciate what you’re trying to do but I don’t need positivity now. I need to process what I’m going through.” Sometimes you might want to leave the conversation entirely and that’s fine too. You do not have to defend your feelings, thoughts or emotions. Regardless, you are entitled to feel them fully.

There’s a quote I read recently that went something like:

“Someone who drowns in 6 feet of water is just as dead as someone who drowns in 20 feet of water. Stop comparing traumas, yours or anyone else’s, because it wasn’t “as bad” as someone else’s. This isn’t a competition, we all deserve support and recovery.”

So don’t feel guilty for feeling one way or another. You don’t have to focus on the positive and it doesn’t matter who has it worse. Let yourself feel. And let others feel.

While positivity is important, sometimes it just isn’t what we need.

Negative emotions and thoughts also serve a purpose, especially when it comes to things like trauma or grief. As I mentioned before, it isn’t healthy to just pretend that something didn’t or isn’t happening. We need to process these things in order to move on. Otherwise, we will see the side effects come out- whether consciously or not- in our daily lives, careers, and relationships.

You matter. And your feelings are valid regardless of how positive or negative they may be.

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