Non-Toxic Positivity

toxic positivity4

Given that we are in the midst of a worsening pandemic, many of us are trying to focus on the positive; which is a great coping technique. But positivity comes in different forms, and they’re not all good for you. Lets’ explore how to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic positivity.

“It could always be worse.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Everything will work out.”

Sometimes well-meaning people say these things because they just don’t know what else to say. And, yes things could often be be worse, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a valid reason for being upset.  Plus, things don’t always work out; we are all getting plenty of examples of this currently.

There is an abundance of research that touts the benefits of positivity, but when you do so to an extreme, you sacrifice authenticity. This extreme is known as toxic positivity. It is an excessive overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. It can result in the denial, minimization, and a dismissal of authentic human emotions.

Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to silence our felt experience (emotions), it becomes toxic. This leads to a state of denial and repressed emotions. 

Studies show that repressing our emotions can have negative effect on our bodies. In one study, research participants were divided into two groups and shown disturbing medical procedure films while their stress responses were measured (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production). One group was asked to watch the videos while letting their emotions show whereas the second group of subjects were asked to watch the films and act as if nothing were bothering them. And guess what? The participants who suppressed their emotions (acted as if nothing bothered them) had significantly more physiological arousal (Gross and Levenson, 1997). Ignoring your feelings, or acting positive when you feel negative is not healthy!

Most of us have a happiness set point; that is, an emotional baseline that we tend to return to no matter what is happening around us. Some people have a natural tendency to be more optimistic. Others lean towards irritability; or even melancholy or depression. Some of this is hereditary, and some is a learned pattern, and therefore changeable.

Also interesting to note is that the general level of positive affect that a person experiences is not related to the level of negative affect they experience, and vice versa. In the moment, people generally tend towards one or the other, but overall positive and negative affect tend to vary completely independently. In other words, someone who reacts to positive situations with exuberant joy, can also feel crushing sadness when something negative happens.  Cheerful people are not always cheerful.

What can be confusing is that often we feel conflicting emotions.  We can be upset with our child’s behavior, while also feeling very grateful for them. We can feel worried and discouraged that we are still in a pandemic, while also being thankful that we are healthy.

One strategy for accepting and balancing the seemingly conflicting emotions is a strategy called “yes, and.” For instance, “I’m so tired of being stuck inside with my family and I’m grateful that I enjoy my family’s company enough to be stuck inside with them.” Or “I’m afraid of what the future holds and I feel some excitement at the hope some things may change for the better.” When can make room for all of our emotions by becoming okay with holding conflicting feelings

While pushing away our negative feelings and focusing only on the positive is a form of denial, positive affectivity does has many benefits for our everyday life. Positive affectivity is a trait that reflects stable individual differences in positive emotional experience; high levels of the trait are marked by frequent feelings of cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and energy. Research has linked positive affectivity with an increase in longevity, better sleep, and a decrease in stress hormones.

Happiness and positive emotions researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has theorized that positive affect encourages people to be more open, engaged, and willing to be creative. For example, when a person is happy, they will likely experience a stronger urge to engage with others and try new things than when they are feeling negative or neutral. Positive affect makes it more likely one with get creative in finding way to get your needs met in changing circumstances, or find new ways to release stress while stuck at home.

Instead of pushing away negative feelings, view them from and non-judgmental place and listen to what they are trying to tell you. Emotions are data; they have something to show you.

emotion wheel2 colour

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”

Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

After letting yourself feel your emotions, move to employing strategies to shift your mood which will naturally make you feel more positive without forcing a smile and a “it could always be worse.” Positive affect can be increased strategically, and it’s effects leads to upward spirals of positive emotions. Strategies to increase positive affect can not only help you to feel better in the moment, but over time can shift your set point to drift more towards optimism.  It is definitely worth trying to cultivate!

Positivepsychology.com suggestions the following strategies, when engaged in consistently can increase your positive affectivity:

  1. Maintain a gratitude journal: write about what you are grateful for and you will subsequently feel even more grateful and happy.
  2. Indulge in the good things in life: incorporate pleasurable experiences into your life to experience positive affect more often.
  3. Engage in hobbies you like: getting into the flow of your favorite hobbies can leave you with more positive emotions, less stress, and a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
  4. Practice loving-kindness meditation: this type of meditation is a great way to boost your joy and beat back stress.
  5. Exercise in a way you enjoy: we all know that being active is linked to health, but it’s important to make sure that the physical activity you engage in is something you enjoy.
  6. Savor the positive: think back on your positive memories and good times you’ve experienced as often as you can (Scott, 2018).

An important aspect of letting yourself feel all of your emotions, while also creating more positive affectivity is self-empathy.  Practicing kindness towards yourself can lead you to become more understanding of your emotions and more aware of what support you need. Follow these links for more on cultivation of self-empathy and self-kindness,  and identifying unmet needs.

self comp

Dr. Kristen Neff, a self-compassion researcher does great video on self-compassion here.

No more grin and bear it, toxic positivity. Shit happens and it doesn’t feel good. Feel your negative feelings, have empathy for yourself, and strategically increase your positive affect.

Thanks for reading.

With Gratitude,

Aimee O’Neil LLMSW

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Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Founder of Wisdom Cultivators

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