How to Recognize Toxic Positivity

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“Look on the sunny side.” “Your glass is half full.” “Be positive.” These messages, and others like them, pop up constantly on social media streams and in self-help articles. But is this good advice? Not always, according to mental health experts. While there’s nothing wrong with cultivating optimism, there is such a thing as toxic positivity.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity refers to the idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and the positive aspects of life. Hence, if we ignore difficult emotions and the parts of our life that aren’t working as well, we’ll be happier. However, this approach can actually be detrimental to mental health.

When we focus solely on the positive, we don’t learn how to deal with negative emotions. Therefore, toxic positivity can keep teens and young adults from understanding themselves better and accepting whatever’s going on inside them—including unpleasant feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and jealousy.

The truth is that we all feel both positive and negative emotions. And denying or suppressing the negative ones is more likely to make those feelings worse. When you push away a difficult emotion rather than dealing with it head on, it tends to grow in significance. On the other hand, research shows that people who acknowledge their negative emotions are more adaptable and have better mental health.

Why Negative Emotions Aren’t Really Negative

Difficult emotions are often described as “negative,” in contrast to “positive” feelings like joy, pride, and love. But these harder emotions can provide important information about what’s really going on inside and understanding how to deal with “negative” emotions is important for maturity and growth.

For one, they can serve as clues that let you know you’re making a choice that isn’t in your best interest. For example, if you feel upset whenever you spend time with a particular friend, that could be a clue that the relationship isn’t promoting your well-being.

Furthermore, uncomfortable emotions can help in identifying trauma triggers. If a certain situation catalyzes fear and anxiety, that’s information that can help you uncover and process a traumatic experience.

The Dangers of Toxic Positivity

Whether it’s at home or online, a toxic positivity culture can keep teens and young adults from expressing their true feelings. Sometimes parents push adolescents to be positive because they don’t know how else to help. Or perhaps they’re afraid to face the severity of the problem. Friends on social media may also reinforce the message that it’s not okay to feel unhappy.

Studies show that this social pressure to be positive decreases well-being. And it increases feelings of shame about being sad or angry. In addition, adolescents often feel that they can’t be honest about what they’re going through. Hence, it’s more likely that they will turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their pain, or engage in other maladaptive behaviors.

An authentically positive teen or young adult is able to recognize and enjoy positive emotions and experiences, while also acknowledging and addressing difficult ones.

“It is only through inviting in all the parts of ourselves, and the full spectrum of our feelings, that we can come to accept and love ourselves—and ultimately become the people we were always meant to be.”

Jamison Monroe, Newport Academy Founder and Chairman

Ways to Work with Negative Emotions

In conclusion, here are five ways to address difficult emotions without falling into the trap of toxic positivity.

Clinical therapy: Evidence-based modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy support teens and young adults in facing and processing difficult emotions. This includes emotions that arise from trauma and PTSD.

Creative arts therapy: Art, music, and dance therapy are nonverbal approaches to expressing painful emotions so they can be released.

Yoga: Yoga help adolescents to become more aware of the emotions and memories held in their body. In addition, yoga activates the nervous system’s relaxation response, promoting well-being and emotion regulation.

Authentic connection: Sharing your feelings with a trusted friend or relative almost always eases the intensity of a difficult emotion.

Self-compassion: Give yourself loving permission to feel all of your feelings.

Sources:

J Abnorm Psychol. 1997 Feb;106(1):95–103.

Emotion, 18(5), 755–764.

Motivation and Emotion. 2016 Aug;40(4):602–624.