How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Positivity can be a force for good in your life, but it’s a force that can be misused, and then it becomes toxic. It’s important to understand how and why positivity could go wrong to actually use it to good effect.

Positivity can be an Antidote to Negativity

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Depression is an all too common problem impacting more than 264 million people worldwide. One of the elements of depression is having this voice in your head, belittling yourself in everything that you do. 

Avoiding negative self-talk is an essential part of getting your life to work better. It can break bad habits that are actively interfering with you, creating the life you desire.

Positivity is the obvious answer here. Instead of saying “I can’t possibly do this,” say “I can do this!” and believe it in your heart that you can.

But if positivity is the only tool in your toolbox, sometimes you misuse it. It’s kind of like that saying

“When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.”

When and How Positivity Turns Toxic

If the goal is to overcome bad habits so you can get things done, positive spin and little pep talks can be useful tools. But if it veers into denial, it can become counterproductive and could be even more harmful than negativity.

Sometimes negativity is really venting or kvetching. It can be a way to acknowledge that life is hard so you can process those feelings and move past them.

When positivity is handled such that you don’t allow yourself or other people to acknowledge their negative feelings, it becomes a form of emotional oppression. This just becomes another burden to bear on top of everything else.

Anytime you practice denial, you undermine your ability to exercise good judgment. Negative feelings can contain important and valuable information warning you of things you need to address effectively.

In other words, we may feel like “I can’t do this” not because we are neurotic and depressed. Often, it’s because of barriers between us and our goal. The best approach is to allow ourselves to feel like “I can’t do this” and then assessing why we feel that way. It’s more effective than simply ignoring the feeling.

A “can do” attitude is useful when paired with good rubrics for how to get things done. But it can also be problematic when it encourages you to ignore genuine problems.

Toxic Positivity and Social Interactions

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In many cases, when people complain about toxic positivity, they are talking not about their own bad habits but about how other people treat them. Positivity can be toxic socially when it is a means for one person to impose unrealistic expectations on other people.

It is all too common for “chin up” statements to be a form of systemic abuse. Often, it is someone in a position of privilege or power insisting that everyone else put on a happy face no matter how bad things really are.

Someone with a genuinely upbeat attitude can wind up making other people feel dismissed, belittled, and imposed upon.

If you simply have a sunny disposition, try to be mindful of how your disposition or positivity affects those around you. Be mindful of not imposing this on others in a harmful way. It is important to validate the feelings of other people. Listen to their feedback and opinions even if it isn’t framed as positively as you might frame it.

If your upbeat attitude is authentic and not just you “putting on a happy face” while feeling terrible inside, it may help to keep in mind that you may have advantages other people lack. It may look more do-able to you than it does to other people because of your circumstances.

Instead of dismissing them, listen to their concerns. You may be able to educate them in a way that makes things more achievable for them or you may just come to realize that things aren’t equally easy for everyone.

Expanding the Number of Tools in Your Toolbox

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If you want to be genuinely positive and productive, you need to do more than just replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk. You need to be able to assess when it makes sense to simply say, “I just need a little pep talk” and when there are other things that need to be done.

For starters, realize that the world is not all black and white. There is more to life than positivity or negativity.

Learning to frame things more neutrally can be an excellent way to avoid negativity without veering into an oppressive habit of toxic positivity. Neutral, objective language is a best practice for many things. It can more effectively disrupt negative self-talk than simply putting on a happy face and pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.

You also need to understand how and why to validate negative feelings. Blowing off steam so you can tackle hard things can be a constructive and positive experience. Furthermore, it can be a better practice than denying that such feelings exist.

Feelings come from somewhere. Don’t deny or ignore what you are feeling. Face it and find out why you’re going through such emotions.

Positivity should be about getting things done and about moving emotional baggage out of the way. It should never be about pretending that nothing bad ever happens.

Sensitivity is an Alternative to Positivity

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Instead of running around, insisting that everyone put on a happy face, you can educate yourself about social and emotional intelligence. You can learn to be sensitive to the people around you and how social dynamics work in group settings.

Positive self-talk is relatively simple and easy when you are only talking to yourself. It becomes more challenging to get it right and use it well when talking with another person.

In a group setting, you may be dealing with different cultures and ethnicities. This can tremendously complicate communication as something positive, constructive, and socially acceptable for one culture could be offensive to another. Furthermore, each culture could be represented in a diverse group.

Learning to communicate effectively in a group setting is an art in its own right. It often relies heavily on learning unbiased language. This can include learning to use gender-neutral language as just one element of not implicitly exclude people.

People who feel respected, validated, and heard will generally feel more positive than people who feel compelled to pretend to act happy. Studies show that suppressing emotions increases stress levels.

Feelings Come From Somewhere

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Knowing how to manage feelings can be a useful tool for getting through life, but it is possible to get too focused on this detail. The reality is that getting things done often involves a range of emotions, and to some degree, you should learn to embrace that.

There are no highs without lows. Remember, a mountain has both highs and lows. A flat plain has neither.

Empowering people to climb that metaphorical mountain can be a better approach than worrying overly much about avoiding negative feelings. Your focus should be on handing out tools to help people deal with the problem than pretending everyone is happy all the time.

There is an art to this, but it takes time. You shouldn’t expect it to happen overnight. It involves exercising good judgment about when to stop and deal with negative feelings and when to say “How you feel isn’t really important. Just do the thing anyway.” 

Some Useful Tools

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As a takeaway for this post, here are some things you could use to help improve your ability to avoid toxic positivity:

  • Keep a journal to help explore your feelings.
  • Read up on negotiation as a skill.
  • Learn good communication skills.
  • Do some therapy to sort your own baggage.
  • Learn a bit about the cultures of people around you.
  • Work on writing skills if you communicate regularly in writing.
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