While it’s true a positive mindset can bring about positive change, the nature of life is that it simply isn’t possible to always apply “don’t worry, be happy.” Humans experience a full range of emotions. While we may wish to only experience happiness, excitement, and enlightenment, emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear all exist for a reason. These “negative” emotions help us navigate life and communicate with others. How do we appreciate joy without having experienced sorrow? Avoiding seemingly negative emotions only make them bigger, as the underlying cause of them must be realized and dealt with in order to create sustained periods of well-being. When does positivity become toxic?
What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like?
There is no question that a positive outlook is good for our mental and even possibly our physical health. Less stress means a lower rate of production of our stress hormones, which in excess and over prolonged periods of time can have health implications for our immune system and cardiovascular health. A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study recently found that there may be a link between positivity and healthier behaviors that help reduce the risk of death from cancer, stroke, and respiratory disease. We need positivity in order to help us manage situations that lead to anxiety and depression. However, the concept that we can always maintain positivity or will ourselves to feel positive during times of adversity isn’t quite accurate.
Most of us have experienced toxic positivity in some form or another. Phrases such as “just think positive” or “it will all work out in the end” are often handed out as advice or seen in images on social media. Most of the time, this advice is well-intended or comes as a result of not knowing how else to help. Essentially toxic positivity is when an attempt is made to outwit our emotional process by choosing to focus on only the good in any situation. The opposite of optimism isn’t always negativity. Sometimes the opposite of positivity is practicing acceptance. An example of this might be hearing “you’ll move on” or “you’ll get over it” when we experience a breakup. A healthier option than deciding we can force ourselves to get over a painful situation is to accept that there is pain and from that, there can be healing and growth over time.
When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness or loses a loved one, the stages of grief are a normal and necessary part of emotionally processing such events. Clinical depression and post-traumatic stress are examples of mental health issues and medical conditions, the nature of which cannot be treated by only adopting a positive mindset. In order to navigate the very real nature of the life events that cause us pain and distress, it’s important to acknowledge the legitimate feelings attached to them.
Why We Need the Full Range of Emotion
Our seemingly negative emotions exist to tell us something is wrong. When we feel guilty we know we have gone against our own moral inclinations, when we feel anger we know we have been wronged or are experiencing discomfort, or when we feel fear we can respond to a perceived threat. Feelings are information and sometimes information that there is something to be recognized or revisited. We must deal with the root or cause of these feelings in order to experience the opposite of them.
Psychologist Carl Jung asserted, “What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.” In other words, when we resist feeling painful or negative emotions, not only does the same emotion continue but it has the potential to become a larger, more driving force in our lives. An example of this can be found in the concept of healing the inner child. When we had an experience as a child that left us feeling unsafe or unheard, that feeling has the power to stay with us and steer our decision making as adults. Choosing to honor the feelings of our inner child, however, can help us manage those unsafe feelings and keep them from causing disruption in our personal relationships. What we resist persists, but what we seek to grow from makes us healthier and more whole.
Acceptance, Support, and Validation – The Opposite of Toxic Positivity
Facing difficult situations and shining light on painful events of the past take time. In the meantime, what most people need is help to practice acceptance, validation of the way they feel in the moment, and support. What does this look like? Changing the language that we use when someone seeks us out for a space to vent or for advice. A few examples of this look like:
- Instead of “think positive” try “I understand this is hard, the way you are feeling is valid”
- Instead of “don’t be so negative” try “It’s okay to feel negative about this right now”
- Instead of “you’ve got this” try “how can I support you through this?”
- Instead of “never give up” try “if you have weighed the options and you think it’s best, it’s okay to walk away”
Seeking positivity is a wonderful thing. We should all strive towards optimism when we can, but we must also honor our need to process and be true to the nature of our emotions.
Ashley Addiction Treatment is an innovative treatment program located on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Ashley provides support for professionals seeking help with addiction. We are able to help people with co-occurring disorders and offer confidential treatment programs to meet your needs. Please reach out to us today at (800) 799-4673.