‘Toxic Positivity’ Is Real — and It’s a Big Problem During the Pandemic
We shouldn’t have to pretend that everything’s OK when it isn’t.
When I was laid off from my staff job a little less than a month ago, many well-meaning friends and family rushed to tell me that I needed to “stay positive.”
I’d be back on feet if I just stayed focused, they said.
Plus, they reminded me, “It could be worse.” At least I was getting a severance. At least my husband was still employed. At least I still had my good health.
The undertone was clear: I should be grateful for what I did have. I shouldn’t dwell on what I had just lost.
No one meant to hurt me with these comments. They were trying to make me feel better. And of course, I was grateful for what I did have. I knew I was still in a pretty privileged position.
But that didn’t mean the situation still didn’t suck.
Layoffs are awful. They’re even more awful in the middle of a pandemic, when job loss is at a historical high in this country. Finding a new gig didn’t sound remotely easy, especially when it felt like everyone was looking for a job and nobody was looking to hire.
I felt disillusioned and anxious. No amount of positive thoughts and attempts to “stay upbeat” would change that.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with positivity. In fact, it can be a force for good that helps motivate you for the future.
But positivity can also become harmful when it’s insincere, forceful, or delegitimizes real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or hardship.
In this case, it’s not healthy positivity, it’s toxic.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or — my pet peeve term — ‘positive vibes,’” explains Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in, among other things, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.
Toxic positivity can take many forms: It can be a family member who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can be a comment to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have.”
It can be a meme that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy.” It can be a friend who repeatedly posts how productive they’re being during lockdown. It can be your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear.
With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.
“The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience,” says Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, Maryland. “It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.”
Karoll continues: “Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive.
“They distract us from the problem at hand, and [they] don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health.”
Zuckerman says that “toxic positivity, at its core, is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort.” But when you avoid your emotions, you actually cause more harm.
For example, one older studyTrusted Source showed that when you’re asked not to think about something, it actually makes you more likely to think about it.
And one studyTrusted Source from 1997 showed that suppressing feelings can cause more internal, psychological stress.
“Avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health,” Zuckerman says.
“Failure to effectively process emotions in a timely manner can lead to a myriad of psychological difficulties, including disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD,” she says.
By Simone M. Scully