Thriving Together Series: Toxic Positivity
By: Blaine Fortune, a Mason student majoring in Communication
“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” – Walt Disney
Toxic positivity is pressuring yourself to be positive even when doing so is not authentic or helpful. It involves denying and suppressing negative emotions rather than expressing them honestly. Trying to maintain a positive mindset at all costs may seem at first like it can promote well-being. But it actually harms well-being. Here’s why toxic positivity is harmful, and how to overcome it.
When going through troubling times, many people’s go-to advice is to stay positive and try not to think of the bad. The intentions behind this advice may be good, but if you block out all negative aspects, you do not truly face the issue at hand. This distraction through positivity can become a detriment to you, exacerbating your suffering.
If you are feeling low and are forced to shift your focus to something happier, you might feel like the other person does not understand your feelings. The issue with toxic positivity is the invalidation of feelings. Consider this scenario: you have just had a fight with your parents about an important decision you need to make. They want you to go in one direction, while you are being pulled in the other direction. You go to a friend to vent and ask for advice and they say, “Everything will be okay! You shouldn’t worry too much. It will all work out no matter what!” The sentiment is well-meaning, but it does not acknowledge the sadness and disappointment of the scenario. It also undermines the gravity of the decision. If the decision were something really important to you, wouldn’t you want your friend to address its importance?
According to a Forbes article, situations like this deplete trust between people because the suffering party feels that are others are not listening to them. Not acknowledging the negative feelings someone is experiencing can make it seem like they were not listening in the first place. Negative feelings, while uncomfortable, need to be acknowledged because letting them sit and fester can lead to compounding negative emotions. It should be okay to express these emotions in a safe space.
College students can face many difficult situations, such as leaving home, discovering and taking on new responsibilities, and facing the hardest course load they have ever faced. It is important to understand that it is okay to not feel okay. We may also aim toxic positivity toward ourselves. It is important to be gentle with ourselves, and it is okay to express negative feelings when they come up, as long as it does not decrease your quality of life.
Last, but not least, how can we avoid being toxically positive to our friends going through something difficult? Dan Corp writes in the Grand Rapids Business Journal with this advice on how to support others without invalidating their experience:
- Acknowledge reality, be honest about the situation, and give realistic hope when necessary.
- Listen to your friends and let them express themselves in a way that allows them to let out negative feelings. If they ask for advice, this is the point when it is okay to insert opinions.
- For the most part, communicate with them and learn what their needs are at the moment.
It is very easy to try and slip into a routine of pushing positivity when faced with difficulties, but it is important to express all emotions – not just the ones that are easy for everyone else to digest. When we support each other in the ways we all need, we can make sure the emotional needs of everyone are met.
- Find mental health support and resources through Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
- Take a well-being break with Mindful Mason Moments mindfulness sessions.
- Learn how to help someone in a mental health crisis, through Mental Health First Aid Training, which is offered free for Mason students and employees.
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