What toxic positivity feels like and how to to overcome it

Yes, there is a dark side to positivity.

Harper's Bazaar India

Thanks to my job, I have a basic understanding of how the algorithm works. So, I try not to engage with any kind of content that I don’t want to see more of. But despite consciously ignoring the good-vibes-only and always-be-happy kind of content, the social media platform insists on showing me those posts every single day. 

I know these are meant to inspire and help me manifest positivity and happiness in my life, but the fact that I am completely put off (peeved even) by the bombardment of these 'happy and positive' posts every time I open the app, begs the question—how much positivity is too much positivity? 

On most days, I am an optimist. I try to view the glass as half full and keep an open mind. However, I don’t believe that everything in life has to have a positive spin. Too much of a good thing is never good. And this only begins to explain the concept of toxic positivity. 

Toxic positivity is a way of thinking that tends to reject the very existence of negative emotions; it's an obsession with positive thinking. The term was coined by psychologist and author, Dr Jamie Zuckerman, and refers to the excessive promotion of positive thinking, without taking an individual’s actual situation or experiences into consideration. The Psychology Group defines it as an "excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations". They further add, "Toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience."  

Life can never be classified into white and black or negative and positive. There is always a grey area in every situation. When you only focus on the positives, you essentially sweep all negative emotions under the carpet. Suppressing your emotions and telling yourself that everything will be okay in your life if you just adopt a more positive outlook, will only harm you in the long run. Below, we have listed some telltale signs of toxic positivity and ways to deal with them. 

You feel guilty for feeling negative emotions   

If pangs of guilt are constant companions to your anger or sadness, you might be in the toxic positivity loop. Consciously or subconsciously you might have conditioned yourself to believe that all negative emotions are signs of weakness or are harmful to your mental health. The truth is, for living a functional and balanced life, we need to feel and process all our emotions, even ones that are painful and have negative connotations. It’s a part of being human, after all.  

You invalidate the negative feelings of others   

Imagine your friend just got dumped and is crying and venting to you. She is angry, sad, confused, and is feeling a whole mixed bag of negative emotions. Would you tell her: “It could be worse” or “Look at the positive side” or “Stop crying, this is a positive thing in disguise”? If yes, you have probably adopted toxic positivity as a way of life. There is no need to invalidate someone’s negative emotions or feel uncomfortable when they are processing their feelings. Instead of telling them to make the most of a bad situation, try active listening and giving real advice. And if you don’t know what to say to make them feel better, hug them.  

You judge people for not having a positive attitude  

When someone is going through a bad phase in life or battling a mental illness, they do not necessarily have a positive outlook towards life. At that moment, if you feel like you should distance yourself from them because they are being too negative or harshing your I-am-always-happy buzz, it’s a sign of toxic positivity. Understandably, we don’t want Debbie Downers around us at all times but everyone is allowed to experience lull days without judgment. You need to be there for your friends and loved ones during these times and help bring their spirits up with your actions and comforting words (not by throwing random motivational quotes or speeches at them). 

You dismiss and bury your negative feelings   

At some point in our lives, we have all put away chaotic, negative emotions in a dark, dingy corner of our mind instead of experiencing and accepting them. But if you do this every time and push yourself to only focus on happy emotions, it’s a sign of toxic positivity. It’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound; you might feel okay until that locked drawer in your mind bursts which, you don’t need us to tell you, will be worse. So, instead of focusing on things that give you short-term happiness and being an 'optimist', try to process the negative emotions. 

You maintain a happy facade at all times   

Do you pretend to be happy and chirpy at all times because you’re afraid to let people see you down in the dumps? Do you fear they will judge you or your troubles will become a burden for them? It's a sign you are in a whirlpool of toxic positivity. Remember, it’s okay to take help and lean on people who are close to you. It doesn’t paint you in a bad light. Letting people in will strengthen your bonds and help you accept that being imperfect is perfectly okay. It’s easier said than done but it can’t hurt to try.