Good vibes only. No bad days. Look on the bright side. These types of ultra-positive sayings are everywhere, no doubt fueled by good intentions. But if that sunshine-all-the-time approach to life really worked, why are so many of us stressed and anxious?
Whitney Goodman, LMFT, says the pressure to be happy all the time, no matter the circumstances, can have negative consequences for our mental health and relationships. She explores the concept in her book, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy. Goodman says that toxic positivity is a type of unrelenting positivity that leaves no room for people to experience the full range of human emotions. “There’s this idea that if you’re not pursuing happiness or positivity, there’s something wrong with you, almost like you’re a drag to be around,” Goodman says. “But what I’ve found through being on social media and through my own work is that it is completely unattainable.”
Difficult thoughts, experiences, and emotions are part of life, but toxic positivity encourages people to avoid them. For instance, imagine losing a beloved pet. Someone with a generally positive outlook might think, “This hurts, so I’m going to take care of myself as I mourn my loss. It won’t be easy, but I know it won’t be this difficult forever.” But someone struggling with toxic positivity might label that emotional pain as “bad,” pretend that everything is fine, and avoid processing the grief.
Here, 5 ways to spot toxic positivity—and replace it with positive, realistic thinking.
Appreciate true positive thinking
Goodman is quick to point out that in their authentic forms, optimism and positive thinking are empowering. “When those things are good and healthy, we will notice that we feel better; it will excite and energize us, not leave us feeling dismissed or shut down.” But if you feel yourself dismissing your feelings—for instance, telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel disappointment, or you aren’t allowed to feel upset because you have much to be grateful for—that’s a sign that you’re trying to suppress your emotional experience in the name of positivity.
Make space for difficulties
The last few years have been difficult for most people, and ignoring problems won’t make them go away. Instead of forcing yourself to smile through tough times, try being honest about the situation. “Sometimes just saying, ‘This is hard because it’s hard’ can help,” Goodman says. “It often feels really good and is actually empowering to think, ‘I just need to ride this out. I need to get through it, allow myself to feel it, and then I’ll work on what I want to do about it.'”
If you tend to silence negative thoughts when you’re struggling, Goodman recommends reframing your situation. “I think when we allow ourselves to look at the facts—I’m grieving, there was a pandemic, I lost my job, whatever it is—you can look at that objectively and say, ‘If anybody else is going through this, I would agree that they’re having a difficult experience.'” Then, she says, extend that compassion to yourself.
Help people help you
Picture it: You just got dumped, you’re heartbroken, and you call a friend. “Cheer up,” she says. “You can do way better anyway.” While that’s likely true, that’s probably not what you need to hear. When you’re on the receiving end of toxic positivity, communication is key. “I’m a firm believer that we have to work on teaching people how to be supportive of us,” Goodman says. In those situations, she suggests acknowledging positive intent. Try this example script:
“I know you’re really trying to help me feel better, but that’s not really helpful for me right now. It would be great if you could ______ because that’s what I really need.”
Another way to strengthen your relationships is to communicate up front. “Getting good at expressing our needs to people is huge,” Goodman says. “Then people know what to offer us.” In the above example, that could be as simple as saying, “Hey, I’m feeling down. Can you come over and watch a comedy with me?” Goodman notes that some people are incapable of providing support during tough or awkward times; in that case, it’s best to call on someone else instead of adding to your frustration.
Real talk: Considering climate change, the political realm, the pandemic, and the war, the world has serious problems. But Goodman says it’s possible to acknowledge the gravity of those issues while cultivating moments of (non-toxic) positivity. Look for them in small moments throughout the day, she says; it can be as simple as appreciating a delicious lunch or a beautiful day. “Just in that moment, acknowledging what is good can be so powerful,” she says. “That doesn’t negate what is bad, but it helps you create a balance in your brain.” Finding that balance can give you the energy and motivation to take action—and create lasting positive change.