Toxic Positivity And How To Avoid It

A woman smiling while holding onto leafy branches

We know that a positive mindset can help us overcome hardship and be more resilient.

But is there such a thing as having too much positivity - so much so that it’s toxic? 

Much like the principles of productivity and efficiency, it’s important to have a sense of balance when it comes to positivity. Yes, being positive can help you endure life’s ups and downs, but we should also allow ourselves to be realistic and experience negative emotions in a healthy way, instead of always trying to stifle them. 

So what exactly is toxic positivity? 

Here’s a definition of toxic positivity from The Washington Post: “toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative.”

We’ve all experienced toxic positivity in various situations. Maybe it’s telling yourself to keep your chin up after getting a grad school rejection or being passed over for a promotion, even though deep down you’re really upset.

We’ve also experienced it with others. When a friend is upset and comes to us for consolation, it’s easy to fall into the positivity trap and say things like, “Don’t worry about it” or “Better luck next time!” 

It may be hard to imagine that being too positive is a bad thing, but here are some reasons why forcing yourself to be positive all the time is actually counterproductive.

  • Your negative thoughts can build up over time if they're not let out
  • Your positive comments can come across as dismissive or insensitive to others
  • You risk not being true to yourself 

So how can we tell when our positive attitude has turned toxic? Some signs include:

  • When you receive bad news and convince yourself “Everything is going to be fine” without allowing yourself to process the information
  • Telling friends or loved ones that their problem “isn’t that bad” or “it will all work out in the end” without really listening to what they’re saying
  • Not allowing yourself to express emotions
  • Feeling compelled to hold everything and keep a strong face in front of others

Below, we’ve rounded up different exercises you can practice to help you manage your emotions and experiences in a more balanced way.  

Express your emotions

If you’ve ever watched a professional tennis match on TV, you know that angry outbursts are a familiar sight. Some of the biggest players in the world have smashed their rackets or yelled at referees (and at themselves) out of frustration and stress. When the stakes are high, we all have trouble controlling our emotions. 

But some players are able to channel this anger and hit reset so that they can go back to playing their game and ultimately win. You’ll see them get annoyed or irritated, but then they’ll take a deep breath or relax their shoulders.

It’s similar to mindfulness exercises. Instead of being consumed by anger or denying its existence, it’s about finding healthy ways to express emotions, so that we can eventually move forward. 

One mindful exercise you can do is to write in a journal. Journaling allows you to be honest about your feelings without fearing judgment from others or even yourself. You don't have to show your journal pages to anyone. These entries are for you and your eyes only. 

You can start out by writing in stream of consciousness, making a list of things that are occupying your mind, or trying to describe a situation or experience that is causing stress.

By addressing your emotions and releasing them on the page, it may help you get to the bottom of the negative feelings and help you identify the root of the problem. While journaling may not always provide a solution, it can provide a much-needed outlet. This experience may prove cathartic, especially if you’ve been bottling up your feelings. 

Avoid toxic positivity in conversation

When a friend or coworker comes to you with a problem, a common reflex is to tell them to "Look at the bright side” or “You’ll do great next time.” While these comments may come from a good place, we can end up making the other person feel dismissed or belittled. Here are some techniques we can use to show our support. 

Mirroring is an effective way to build rapport and trust. Mirroring is a communication technique in which you repeat the other person’s verbal and non-verbal cues. This technique may sound awkward and forced but chances are you’ve already practiced mirroring without even realizing it.

Human beings naturally mirror others during conversation. When a person leans forward in conversation, we tend to lean forward. When their vocal pitch goes higher, so does ours. We’re already mirroring unconsciously, so it’s a matter of being mindful of this practice when the situation arises.

Here’s one example of mirroring in conversation:

Person A says: I had the worst day at work. My boss was in such a bad mood.

Person B says: Your boss was in a bad mood?

This gives Person B that unspoken sense that they have been heard, Person A is interested in what they've said, and that they have space to expand on the issue. Showing someone that you are truly listening and interested in them is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

When a friend comes to us with bad news, we’re not always going to have the perfect words to say. And you shouldn’t feel pressured to come up with them! Instead, try to just be engaged in the conversation.

If you catch yourself wanting to come up with an overly positive remark, you can fall back on trying to repeat the key words of what the other person has said. But the most important thing that matters is that the other person feels safe and that they are being heard. 

Practice active listening

We may think that we’re actively listening in a conversation, but our non-verbal cues may say otherwise. 

Check your non-verbal communication. Does your body seem open and ready to listen, or are you sitting with arms crossed and not making eye contact? You may also want to make sure that your devices are turned off so that your focus is entirely on the conversation.

When you’re actively listening, you’ll be able to ask questions during the conversation in a more organic way, and this can help the other person feel more comfortable about opening up. You can offer suggestions when asked, but allow the other person to set the pace and solicit feedback. 

As for giving good advice, it can sometimes be helpful if your advice is rooted in a similar experience. So if your friend is upset about a grad school rejection, perhaps you have a similar story that you can share - but make sure to validate their experience and make sure you're not simply taking over the focus of the conversation. Remind them to only take the parts of your advice that resonate with them. 

When it comes to managing our emotions and mindset, it’s natural to lapse into patterns that may not always be conducive for us. If you do catch yourself practicing toxic positivity, remember to be gentle with yourself and that we learn and grow with every experience.

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