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4 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Toxic Positivity

January 11, 2022

Toxic positivity is often an abundance of emotions that are confused and do not have a productive place to "go". No matter how well-intentioned it may be, toxic positivity is neither sustainable nor a healthy mechanism of facing obstacles. Let's redirect these uncomfortable and negative emotions in 4 different ways to free ourselves of the trap of toxic positivity.

1. Swap false reassurances for empathy

When we aren't where we want to be in life, we may fall into a circle of false reassurances. "Everything is going to be okay!", "If I just keep working harder and pushing myself, I will have what they have and then I will be happy!" You may feel as though these are optimistic thoughts. Don't get me wrong, I am not encouraging anyone to throw away their optimism. I am instead asking everyone to welcome their empathy, embrace your empathy for yourself! Suddenly these thoughts that are hanging above you with nowhere productive to land, find a place. They become "I may not be where I want to be right now, but that is okay, I just need a little more time", and "I can't keep pushing myself, this isn't making me happy right now. I may not have the same things that others have now, or even ever, but I am going to prioritize my happiness along the way and that is very important!" By showing yourself empathy, you are shifting the narrative from the toxic positivity of "it's fine, everything's fine!" which is, in reality, not at all encouraging and actually can be very negative and isolating. Instead, the narrative becomes motivating. By allowing yourself the space to finally accept that everything is not butterflies and rainbows- which is completely fine and normal- you will often find that you feel as though a weight is lifted and many are able to move forward in their lives in a very enlightening way.

2. Stop the "should"s

After I lost a loved one to cancer, I decided to speak with a counselor about my grief. I shared that I felt as though I wasn't grieving the way I should, that I should be in a different place at this point in time than I was, and that I should be able to get over certain anxious tendencies that I knew were irrational. That is when my counselor introduced the concept of "glasses" to me. Imagine you are wearing a pair of eyeglasses that have a green tint to them and I place a piece of white paper in front of you. No matter how many times I tell you that the piece of paper is white, you will remain convinced that you are looking at green paper due to the tint of your glasses. Our glasses, or rather the tint of our glasses that causes our views to become skewed over time, are the result of our environments. Society tells young boys that they should act tough and not cry, girls should be quiet and seek approval, you should be able to reach the same milestones that your sibling did before you just as quickly, and so on. Therefore, the young boy that starts to cry shoves his emotions down, the girl never speaks up or sets a challenging goal, and your relationship with your parents and siblings remains strained if you cannot follow the "right" path, all due to the glasses we wear. But what happens when we take the glasses off? When we start to squash the "should"s, we will feel less restricted than ever. At first, it may feel like we don't know which way to go, but over time, the path will become clearer and clearer

3. Feel your feelings

As simple as it sounds. Many people that are trying to aim for positivity above all else, aren't allowing themselves to truly feel their feelings. They are telling themselves that they should be happy regardless of what is happening. And this can create problems. If you aren't allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions, there's a good chance that you will start to suppress your happiness as well. It is okay to be sad, it is okay to feel pain. Don't let society tell you differently. Just because we live in a culture that encourages us to smile no matter how we truly feel, doesn't mean that your emotions don't exist, and it certainly doesn't mean that the world will implode on itself if you allow yourself time to process your emotions.

4. Use clarifying language

Toxic positivity can cause us to want to isolate ourselves and disconnect from the world around us. Why? Because of the constant pressure to ward off negative feelings and to achieve the impossible. Being around others may serve as a reminder that we are "failing" if we have fallen into the trap of toxic positivity. Instead of giving in to the desire to stay inside with your favorite snack and a few episodes (or let's be real, season) of your favorite show, this is the time to lean on those that care about you. The key when doing so, however, is to use clarifying language to express what your needs are. Let's look at a few possible scenarios to see how that could be done.

You are telling your friend about some bad news you have received. You can let that friend know that their role does not need to be your cheerleader, telling you constantly that "you will be okay", "you will get through this", and "you are a hero". Instead, let them know that it is okay to acknowledge that everything may not always be okay, and you may not want to be called a hero. What you will want more than anything is someone to speak with about how you are feeling and not someone to tell you how you should feel. Another benefit to clarifying what you need to a friend in this situation is that they can also advocate for your needs with others.

Another scenario may be when speaking to your partner. Both people participating in a conversation will benefit by knowing what the expectations of the conversation are, at its outset. By simply stating something such as "I just want to vent and I am looking for an empathetic ear rather than advice", will allow you to speak freely while your partner can listen with helpful intentions.

Using clarifying language is also critical for parents as they need to be mindful about modeling the type of behavior for their children that will also help them to avoid toxic positivity.

Above all, it is important to strive for optimism while avoiding the pitfalls of toxic positivity. By replacing false reassurance with empathy, shedding your "glasses, allowing yourself a safe place to feel your genuine feelings, and clarifying your needs with your loved ones, you will find it much easier to be a truly positive person.