It can be tempting, when you or someone you care about is feeling low, to encourage them to cheer up! Or stay positive! Or look on the bright side! This impulse makes sense. Feeling good … feels good, so when someone is upset, or angry, or sad, it’s understandable that you would want to help them stop feeling those negative emotions and feel happy instead. As well-intentioned as this urge may be, however, it can quickly veer into what has been dubbed “toxic positivity,” a phenomenon that psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva described to Health magazine as “an insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding.”
How can positivity lead to “needless suffering”? And what are we supposed to do with all our negative emotions, then? Below, what to know about toxic positivity, including how to avoid it and why embracing your negative emotions will actually leave you feeling better in the long run.
How can too much positivity possibly be a bad thing?
Forced positivity can be harmful — both to yourself and others — for a number of reasons. First, it carries the implication that negative emotions are something to fear and elude, instead of simply being an unavoidable side effect of existence. This, in turn, can lead to a whole mess of negative meta-emotions, i.e., how you feel about your feelings; so suddenly, instead of just dealing with the stress and sadness you were originally experiencing, you’re also dealing with the stress and sadness you feel about your stress and sadness. How exhausting.
It can also be an avoidance tactic, a way to escape confronting a source of negativity, which then only makes our fear and anxiety around whatever is triggering our negative emotions even stronger. As author and clinical social worker Jenny Maenpaa told Health, “You may close the metaphorical closet door on it, but the specter of it looms behind the door, growing scarier and stronger in our minds precisely because we aren’t addressing it.”
Repressing these emotions can have serious physical as well as emotional consequences. As Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of It’s Not Always Depression, wrote in a 2018 essay for Time magazine, “Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.”
What are some examples of toxic positivity?
The Psychology Group, a therapy, counseling, and life-coaching practice in Florida, has put together a list of toxic-positivity red flags. These include:
• Hiding how you really feel about something.
• Trying to dismiss or ignore emotions when they come up so you can “just get on with it.”
• Feeling guilt or shame about the emotions you’re feeling.
• Minimizing other people’s negative emotions or experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements.
• Telling someone “it could be worse” when they try to share a negative feeling.
• Chastising others for a lack of positivity.
• Dismissing negative feelings — yours or others’ — by saying, “It is what it is.”
Why are negative emotions so important?
Negative emotions offer us valuable information. As Dr. Marc Brackett, the founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes in his 2019 book Permission to Feel, emotions both positive and negative are “like news reports from inside our psyches, sending messages about what’s going on inside the unique person that is each of us in response to whatever internal or external events we’re experiencing.” Being able to access and interpret this information allows us to make fully informed decisions about how we want to live our lives going forward.
Consider the following example: If you notice that, say, you feel really hurt and sad when your partner doesn’t respond to your texts, you can take that information and make a decision to address the issue in a way that feels right for you. Maybe you share your feelings with your partner and ask them to be mindful of your needs, or maybe you look at why their lack of responsiveness ignites such strong feelings in you and try to address that. Maybe you do both at the same time. In order to make that decision, though, whatever it is, you need to be able to acknowledge and accept your hurt and sadness in the first place, instead of pretending that, actually, you’re totally fine with your partner not texting back, even though, on the inside, you want to scream into a pillow until you pass out.
Once you’ve gleaned information from your negative emotions, you can use it to make decisions that won’t make you feel as terrible in the future. Embracing your negative emotions can make you feel better in the long run.
Scientific studies have also found that accepting emotions, including negative ones, instead of dismissing them is an important predictor of emotional well-being. A 2017 study conducted at UC Berkeley and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health in over 1,300 adults and concluded that “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”
“It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being,” the study’s lead author, Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, told the Berkeley News. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”
Damn, okay, I’m convinced. So how do I avoid toxic positivity and accept my negative emotions?
In a 2013 essay for Scientific American, psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez recommended trying out mindfulness exercises. These will “help you become aware of your present experience without passing judgment on it.”
As for dealing with other people’s difficult emotions, like confusion or fear, psychologist Marcia Reynolds recommended in Psychology Today that instead of trying to be positive or diffusing the other person’s emotions, you should listen, ask questions, and reserve judgment. By showing that you care and are curious about what the other person is going through, it makes it easier for them to open up. Reynolds adds that, once their strong emotions start to dissipate, you can see if you can help them discover the roots of their emotions. “What do they feel they have lost, or are afraid they will lose, based on the situation? Is the loss real or imagined? What do they need to take a first step forward? If they are ready to explore with you, this is the best way to help.”