While everyone chases this amorphous and loaded term, “happiness,” the truth is that it’s okay not to be happy sometimes. It’s impossible to be upbeat and optimistic all the time. It can actually do more harm than good to try. Blacking out or avoiding any negative feelings means we’re completely disregarding an entire range of emotions and invalidating them. This kind of focused ignorance is often referred to as toxic positivity.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Why is it called toxic positivity? What is so toxic about wanting people to feel good? Toxic positivity specifically refers to the belief that, regardless of situation or obstacle, people should maintain a positive mindset.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to cheer yourself up or show some semblance of healing from tragedy and trauma, but toxic positivity doesn’t allow people to go through the process of dealing with complex emotions. Instead of working through difficult feelings, the shame of feeling sad or the influence of others who don’t want to hear about your sadness pushes a falsely-cheerful veneer.
The harm in false happiness is that it gets in the way of open and honest mental health processes and eventual acceptance. Toxic positivity dumbs down tangled feelings and minimizes any human moods outside of joy or contentment.
Why Is Toxic Positivity So Harmful?
Living my entire life with clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am often dealing with feelings that are hard to work through. Sometimes, when I’d talk to friends or family about the way I’m feeling, they’d tell me to “cheer up.” They would explain all the good things in my life and what I had to be grateful for. People often implied that it was my choice what type of outlook I woke up with in the morning. That’s not how depression works.
I do not choose to wake up feeling physically pained to even exist. I do not choose to lose complete interest in objects, activities, and people I love. I do not choose to be unable to lift myself up out of bed or take care of personal hygiene. I do not choose dark and morbid thoughts and self-destructive ideation. No one would choose that. I do not wish these feelings on my worst enemies. I also do not choose to have crippling anxiety about checking door locks and arranging items by size and making sure the oven is off. These are functions of a neurodivergent brain.
That’s not to say that I cannot grow, cope, and find ways to exist peacefully, but minimizing the chemical and biological struggles in my head in favor of “oh, just be happy” is the equivalent of telling someone who lost a close loved one to “get over it.”
I know these statements and sentiments are not malicious. The person legitimately wants you to feel better. They are also selfishly not wanting to face difficult thoughts themselves, though, and looking to fast forward the conversation past whatever bad thoughts or obstacles you’re facing. It is within their boundaries to choose the energy they surround themselves with, but this still serves to invalidate you.
If anything, toxic positivity creates additional agony. Not only do you feel the existing pain, but it’s compounded with shame and guilt. It stunts personal growth and progress. It makes honest emotions feel unnatural and leads to repression. When you’re at your lowest point, being told to “think good thoughts” can seem absolutely cruel.
At its worst, toxic positivity is also a form of gaslighting. Someone is creating a false narrative and causing you to question your own reality, undermining how you think and feel.
How Do I Avoid Toxic Positivity?
If you find yourself “faking it” and putting on a happy face when it’s not how you really feel, take some steps to develop a healthy, supportive approach and treat yourself more kindly.
Be honest about how you feel. Instead of outright rejection of feelings of discouragement, anger, or sadness, be open to them and let them in. Be a supportive friend to your complicated emotions and let them speak. Trust your intuition and understand that life’s moods ebb and flow and sometimes you need to sit with bad feelings for a while to process them completely. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s realistic to face adversity, tragedy, or trauma and to be stressed, worried, afraid, sad, or angry.
Be mindful of your inner monologue. If you’re looking for ways to quickly sidestep negative feelings, try to understand why. Are you trying to put on a brave face for someone? Are you trying to prove something to someone? Are you feeling judged? Are you feeling shame or guilt? Try and understand why you’re not allowing yourself to feel things.
Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. While it can be uncomfortable for conflict-averse folks, confrontation of someone’s toxic positivity also gives them a chance to learn and grow as well. It helps people understand and evaluate their words and actions. If they respond in a horrible way, it may be time to cut them out of your life.
Use your thoughts creatively. However you feel, it can be cathartic to put those thoughts and feelings toward the creation of something. A DIY project, writing in a journal, doodling, painting, playing music, or anything where you can channel those emotions into creating can be a valuable coping mechanism when you’re feeling awful.
Human emotions are all valuable, real, valid, and necessary. They give us insights into unconscious parts of ourselves, how we mentally and physically deal with stress, and even awareness of situations or relationships that require change. Let your reactions, moods, and emotions teach you something, but don’t let them control you.