The phrase “toxic positivity” or “positive toxicity” may appear contradictory at a first glance.
How can something that is positive by definition become harmful? An example of toxic positivity could be people saying to look at the bright side of things or to “count your blessings,” and while these sayings are well-intended, they can discredit natural “negative” emotions by shifting one’s focus, and not giving them the attention they need.
While toxic positivity is not a new term, social media has thrown it into the spotlight. Everyday, people scroll through their timelines and see positive messages and their friends smiling with happy captions. It can bring joy to see loved ones doing well, but the psychology goes further than the smiles they wear.
Dr. Virgo Handojo, professor of psychology, explained how toxic positivity finds its way into a person’s mentality and how the effects can become more serious over time.
“It is a response to people who experience suffering by exaggerating positive thinking and positive emotions,” Handojo said. “It can become obsessive, basically invalidating your authentic experience, your pain and suffering.”
Even without knowing the name of it, many people have experienced toxic positivity. “Do not make me mad,” is a common saying people use to deal with friendships or others in general. Avoiding anger or sadness feeds into the superficial origin of positive toxicity and extends into social settings.
“When you are in a bad situation but the people around you constantly say things are fine, you feel guilty for feeling bad,” said Mairani Martinez, sophomore nursing major.
People on the receiving end of toxic positivity may be less likely to deal with their negative emotions in a productive and healthy way.
Habits such as the gym, journaling or hanging out with friends are usual outlets to escape negativity. If not used in a constructive way, resorting to these methods can increase stress and anxiety.
When someone is suffering, enforcing an unwavering positive outlook can cause the person even greater distress, making them feel isolated and unheard.
“You blame yourself, you feel guilty, you feel more depressed, you feel more anxiety,” Handojo said. “You lose your authenticity as an individual. Instead of helping, that’s more suffering.”
Toxic positivity does not always stem from a single outside source and appears often in American culture.
Though well-meaning, popular inspirational phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” “things could be worse” and “positive vibes only” can be discouraging to a suffering person.
“The feel empty and dismissive, like the same blanket statement no matter what bad things are happening,” said Angelina Ortiz, sophomore biomedical sciences major. “It is like the person talking does not really care about you or your problem.”
Does this mean positivity is wrong? The answer lies in balance. While it is important not to impose excessive positivity, the key to comfort is the ability to listen to what the suffering person wants and needs.
There is power in removing labels from emotions. Instead of calling them “good” or “bad,” they can be used as signals to help someone understand their feelings in the moment. They also give clues for friends and family about how someone perceives an event or their stance on a certain topic, according to an article from Psychology Today.
“Life is not always positive,” Handojo said. “When we have to respond to that situation, the best way is to listen and give a safe place rather than diminishing their feelings. We should not impose certain expectations on the person suffering. Acceptance is important.”