Positivity can include three dimensions: internal cognition, faith, and influential personal relationships.
Positive internal cognition or thinking is often purpose-based. It means one has a burning desire and determination that inspires an individual. Purpose keeps one focused on a goal and makes life more meaningful. Having a goal significantly contributes to positivity.
Faith is another aspect of positivity. Positive thinking oftentimes has a spiritual foundation. Positive people have faith in the way the world works and that everything in life happens for a reason. They also realize the meaning of being on Earth and know that there is an opportunity in every situation because there is a purpose for every situation, which will help them get closer to their larger purpose in life. Faith helps an individual to feel that the world, in fact, is helping them to achieve their purpose here on Earth. It gives reassurance that there are positive forces in the world and one is not just a human philandering until their time on Earth is done. Religion often becomes a vehicle used to increase faith.
Influential personal relationships that are close, supportive, committed relationships also mark positive lives. They may include the relationship with oneself, with one’s God, and with one’s family. These relationships are an integral part of positivity as they guide and support people. To stay positive, one must be at peace with oneself, have connections with meaningful people, and rely on something greater than them.
Toxic positivity is the assumption that people should only have a positive mindset despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation. It can take various forms: from chastising you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset to giving comments like “look on the bright side”, “stay positive! It could be worse”, or “be grateful for what you have.” Toxic positivity can be represented in a picture that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy”, or friend’s words about how productive they’re being during a lockdown. Toxic positivity may have a form of your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, or fear.
Toxic positivity means that negative emotions are inherently bad while happiness is compulsively pushed. It denies, minimizes, or invalidates authentic human emotional experiences.
According to Carolyn Karoll, the pressure to appear ‘OK’ absolutely invalidates the range of emotions people experience. Toxic positivity culture can give the impression that one is defective when they have distress, which can be internalized in a core belief of inadequacy or weakness. Judging yourself for feeling anxiety, sadness, jealousy can trigger secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive. Trying to hide or deny feelings usually causes even more stress and leads to increased difficulty in avoiding negative emotions.
Toxic positivity culture distracts people from the problem at hand, and doesn’t give space for self-compassion, which is crucial for mental health. Zuckerman states that toxic positivity is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any emotional discomfort, which causes more harm. He says that avoidance or suppression of internal discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health.
Unblinking optimism and shutting the door on negative emotions doesn’t make them disappear but exacerbate them. The inability to effectively process emotions can lead to numerous psychological difficulties, such as disrupted sleep, drug and alcohol abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.
As you see, dealing with toxic positivity is vital for your mental health. To get rid of this pattern, you should give yourself permission to experience both negative and positive emotions. Be realistic and remind yourself that you can hold various perspectives about troubling situations. Lean into the positive and the negative. Be honest with yourself and express what is bothering you. You can also try journaling or mental exercise to examine and manage your anxieties.
Deep breathing techniques coupled with guided meditations can help to recognize the fear and acknowledge it in order to keep moving forward, while journaling when you are feeling overwhelmed allows you to let go of fears and anxieties. Once your anxiety is explored, take care of yourself instead of turning to toxic positivity that gives you nice-sounding, but empty platitudes.