Toxic Positivity

I recently came across the term “Toxic Positivity”, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. After all, how can positivity be toxic? I’ve even written in the past about the benefits of positive thinking, so I obviously can’t believe that positivity is harmful, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

First off, Toxic Positivity is not real positivity. It’s simply the idea of not allowing people to truly deal with any emotions that aren’t strictly positive. It’s optimism at the expense of authenticity. It’s telling us as a whole that the negative feelings aren’t valid, that they don’t matter.

The type of positivity I advocate for involves reframing negativity, not dismissing it. It’s confronting your negative thoughts head on, and finding the flaws with logic and evidence. On the other hand, Toxic Positivity is, as I understand it, the idea that you can simply move past your negative thoughts if you just ignore them. When you ignore these thoughts you’re not disputing them, you’re just pushing them aside. You’re not starving the negativity by denying it control, you’re letting it boil under the surface.

I believe Toxic Positivity comes from this idea that we choose how we feel.”Happiness is a choice!” That’s a phrase I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point. This reductive, misinformed idea that over 264 million people worldwide have somehow have decided to be depressed is weirdly pervasive. Like with any illness, it’s not a choice. No matter what emotions we’re feeling, they’re a product of what’s going on around us, and, in many cases, what’s going on chemically inside or bodies. We can’t choose our emotions, but we can choose how we deal with them.

Nobody wakes up one morning and decides “you know what? I’m gonna be depressed now!” That’s not how it works. Depression is miserable, nobody would willingly choose to live this way. On the flip side, I can guarantee every person with depression would choose to be happy if it were that easy. But this idea that we choose to feel the way we do, and could in fact be happy if we chose to, completely ignores the true emotional toll depression takes.

However, we can control how we deal with depression. It’s not as easy as waking up and totally changing your life, I think that idea also falls under the umbrella of Toxic Positivity. But you can take steps. Maybe you can’t even get out of bed, how do you go from there to going out and being a happy, functioning person? First you get out of bed. If that’s all you do that day, that’s fine, but take that step. Then maybe the next day you take a shower, and you’re starting to feel even just a little bit better about yourself, so you brush your teeth. It may take days, or months, even years, but eventually you’ll get there. Or you could just lay there in bed, wondering to yourself why you can’t just be happy when the world is telling you that all you have to do is “think positive thoughts”.

This last bit is for the people who expound the benefits of “just think positive thoughts”, if any of you even made it this far. Please, just stop. If you truly care about the person you’re giving advice to, just stop and listen. Let them say what’s on their mind, be accepting of their negativity, but help them challenge those thoughts. Instead of “don’t be silly”, or something else dismissive of their feelings, encourage them to challenge those thoughts. Provide specific counter-examples if you can, or try to lead them towards finding them. But most importantly, just be there for them, let them know you care, and that you accept their feelings.

But if you can’t do any of that, then just stop saying things like “you just need to be more positive about life”, or “people have it worse than you”. Just don’t, you’re not helping, and you might actually be making it worse for the ones who are suffering.

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