The phrases “good vibes only” and “positive vibes only” have become quite trendy. They can be found on everything from coffee mugs to shirts to marquee signs. Life can be made much happier, and challenges seem more like opportunities when you have a positive attitude. You can never have too much positivity, right? Believe it or not, there are times when positivity can become toxic.
The Power of Positive Thinking
There is power in thinking positively, even when you have a mental health disorder like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Studies have shown that positive thinking can help decrease worry in people with GAD.
According to a Mayo Clinic article, “Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress,” positive thinking can help reduce stress and have other benefits including:
- Lower rates of depression
- Longer life span
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Greater resistance to illnesses
- Better coping skills
- Lower levels of distress and pain
- Better psychological well-being
Having an optimistic outlook on life improves mental and physical health. However, according to Gabriel Andrade, unrestricted positive thinking can have significant downsides in terms of psychological development and cultivation of healthy habits as well as larger detrimental societal effects.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines positivity as 1: the quality or state of being positive and 2: something that is positive. This sounds great, and we are told how influential positive thinking can be, so how can positivity ever be toxic?
“Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective over-generalization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. It doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of it, and it generally isn’t helpful,” says the article Taking Charge of Your Survivorship from The University of Minnesota. Positivity becomes toxic when it glosses over a problem or someone is forced to be positive in situations where it is completely unnatural to have a positive attitude.
Toxic positivity forces people to continually look on the bright side and suppress other legitimate feelings such as anxiety, anger, grief, and sadness. It pushes positive thinking to unhealthy and sometimes harmful extremes.
How Do You Tell the Difference Between Optimism and Toxic Positivity?
According to Sophie Lloyd’s Newsweek article “How Toxic Positivity Can Ruin Your Relationships and What To Do About It,” when you are optimistic, you make the best of the cards you have been dealt. You use your available resources and your positive attitude to move forward. On the other hand, “toxic positivity is refusing to acknowledge difficult emotions—like refusing to take off your rose-tinted glasses, even when this is doing you or someone else more harm than good.”
It is important to note that all types of positivity can be either helpful or toxic. Tchiki Davis, MA, Ph.D. provides some examples of toxic positivity including:
- Gratitude: If you say “I am having such an awful day,” and someone responds with, “You are so blessed, and you have so much to be thankful for!”
- Love: If someone says, “I cannot have a relationship with my family. They take advantage of me and continually hurt me,” and you reply, “They are still family so you should forgive them and love them anyway.”
- Positive Reappraisal: If you say, “I am so tired of having migraines,” and someone says, “Well, just be thankful that you do not have cancer.”
Toxic Positivity in the Workplace
One area of our lives where toxic positivity is easy to find is the workplace. Businesses often try to retain employees and increase productivity by attempting to prioritize worker happiness and well-being. This sounds good, but this can lead to a toxic positivity work culture. According to Tchiki Davis, MA, Ph.D., when employees have important concerns and negative emotions related to work but are unable to properly address them or they are brushed off, positivity easily becomes toxic in the workplace.
A Few Helpful Hints for Dealing With Toxic Positivity
How can you effectively deal with toxic positivity when you encounter it? First, remember that the person blasting you with “positive vibes only” is probably not trying to be malicious. Other strategies that may help you deal with toxic positivity are:
- Tell the person you are talking to your needs upfront by saying something like, “I am not looking for a solution, I just need to vent,” or, “I don’t need advice, I just need to bounce my thoughts off of someone and process this out loud”
- Gently remind the other person that all emotions are valid and expressing them helps you process these feelings
- Practice mindfulness so that you learn to pay attention to emotions and experience them without judgment rather than burying them under a mountain of positivity that is not real
- Develop self-compassion. Learn to be kind to yourself so that you do not beat yourself up when you are in a situation where you cannot be positive. No one is positive all of the time, and it is okay to be sad, fearful, or angry. These emotions are just as valid as happiness
The solution to toxic positivity culture is not to be negative. It is to be realistic. Life can be great, but when it is not, it is okay to accept that and not be positive. Feel those emotions and work through them rather than trying to force positive thoughts and believing that they will magically improve the situation.
While having a positive outlook on life can be helpful, there are times when positivity can be toxic. When “positive vibes only” is used to bury a problem or issue that needs to be dealt with such as mental illness or substance use disorder (SUD), positivity can become harmful. At Sober Life, our expert staff will help you as you peel back any layers of toxic positivity to reveal the underlying emotions and issues that have been contributing to worsening mental health or SUD. Our programs are resiliency-focused and build on the strengths that have served you well in the past. You and your needs are unique so your treatment plan will be individualized to meet those unique needs no matter which of our convenient levels of care you choose. If you are ready to start your recovery, call Sober Life today at (619) 542-9542.