What is toxic positivity?

Jason Brien.

To understand toxic positivity, picture the little Lego dude in the Lego movie singing his ‘everything is awesome’ song. If positivity espoused by friends, family, media, etc, feels exaggerated, cringy and false, then it is most likely toxic positivity. There is absolute value in encouraging positivity, but the manner in which the positivity is encouraged should be tactful and respectful and not provided unsolicited. When someone has recently suffered a major trauma, and they remain in bed for days on end sorting through their grief and shock, this is not the time to say ‘Everything will be okay if you just look on the bright side of life”.

When is positivity toxic?

* When it is delivered in a manner which is unsolicited, unwanted, unwarranted, invalidating, demeaning, discouraging or disrespectful to the person on the receiving end of the ‘advice’.

* When the person espousing the toxic positivity is doing so only to alleviate their own feelings of discomfort and/or displeasure.

* When you are ‘advised’ to ‘brush off’, minimise, suppress or repress genuine non-happy emotions such as sadness, despair, shame, guilt, etc.

* When you feel that you have to hide your genuine ‘non-happy’ emotions so as not to make people around you feel uncomfortable.

* When you feel guilty, broken, stupid, unwanted, unlovable, etc, for having diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

* When the chemical, genetic and other neurobiological factors underpinning sadness, depression, etc are forgotten, dismissed or minimised.

Toxic positivity is healthy positivity on steroids. Toxic positivity is espoused by uneducated or misinformed people. The healthy positivity that is encouraged and advised by mental health professionals is often done so in a tactful, respectful, informative and ‘take it or leave it, no judgement applied’ manner. This positivity is also healthy because it is not encouraged or advised to be experienced 100% of the time. What I mean by this is, any decent mental health professional will encourage and advise their clients to ‘get in touch with’ and experience the full spectrum of their emotions.

Competent mental health professionals will also be informing their clients about the differences between typical and atypical emotions and state and trait emotions. Typical emotions are fleeting and short-lasting and usually of low intensity. Atypical emotions are persistent, long-lasting and often of high intensity. This applies to ANY emotion not just the negative ones. Mania and hypomania for example can be considered as atypical happiness. Atypical sadness can be related to depression. Atypical grief can be related to bereavement disorder. The point is, too much of ANY emotion can be a ‘bad’ thing.

State emotions are those which are experienced in response to specific, time-dependent situations. State emotions are flexible and fluid and they vary across time and across situations. In simple terms, there is no guarantee that you will experience the same emotion in all situations which are the same. Take birthdays for example. As a child, birthdays are exciting and happy times. As you get older, not so much. Maybe once you hit your 40th birthday, you are sad and depressed rather than happy and excited. Trait emotions are the emotions which are habitual and persistent over time and across the vast majority of similar situations. That is, there is a very high probability that you WILL experience the SAME emotion across ALL similar situations. You will feel happy and excited about the vast majority of birthdays or you will feel sad and depressed about the vast majority of birthdays.

Most people don’t understand the vital difference between typical and atypical emotions or between state and trait emotions. This misunderstanding leads to unwarranted and unsolicited toxic positivity. Just because you were sad about one event at one time does not necessarily mean that you will not or cannot be happy about another event at another time. The same misunderstanding for trait emotions applies. People who see you sad the vast majority of times fail to recognise that this ‘unhappiness’ is an enduring trait of yours which, to a large extent, is beyond your control. Telling someone with trait sadness to be more positive is unlikely to be received well and is akin to saying “Why can’t you just be a completely different person”?

Mental health professionals often encourage clients to practice positivity (and neutrality) so as to help them counterbalance their negative emotions. Not replace, minimise or suppress. To counterbalance. Think of your Netflix playlist. If your playlist only consists of sad movies, you will only ever feel sad. To counterbalance the sad movies, you need to add some comedies. Just because you have added some comedies though, doesn’t mean that you have to delete the sad movies. The addition of comedy movies just gives you more variability.

Toxic positivity is saying ‘delete all of the sad movies and only ever watch the comedies”. Why would anyone want to do this though? There is nothing wrong with feeling sad. It helps us to cry and helps us to release our emotions. If we didn’t allow ourselves to feel sad, how would we recognise when someone is mistreating us? Likewise, if we never allowed ourselves to feel angry, we would never seek change. I personally think it would be highly dangerous to only ever be optimistic. Toxic positivity can keep us trapped in abusive situations. Toxic positivity can also make us naïve and vulnerable to exploitation.