Can Positivity Be Toxic?

January 13, 2020

Learning the difference between encouragement and invalidation

There is power in positive thinking, but can the expectation of sunny thoughts cause more harm than good?

The key is in the word choice and truthfulness, both from our inner voice and from the comments of those around us.

Colloquially known as “toxic positivity”, a mindset that is rigid and forceful about keeping on the bright side no matter what our true emotional state isn’t always helpful.

All our feelings serve a purpose, sending us important messages and acting in balance of all our life experiences. No one can be happy or positive at all times, even if they like to think so. It’s more likely that those who refuse to acknowledge so-called “negative” emotions are avoiding and shutting out their true internal state.

Here are some examples of common quips that can be poisonously positive and how you and others can adjust to give fair recognition and realistic support.

“Just be positive!” or “Only good vibes!”

Especially as we enter the holiday season, there is immense pressure to feel, or at least appear, happy, festive, and jolly at all times.

This simply isn’t possible, and expecting ourselves or others to shut off anything that isn’t upbeat doesn’t allow for the full spectrum of processing or presence.

The more we shove away emotions that we see as problematic or scary, the more we are convinced we can’t handle them or need to avoid them at all costs. This can continue a cycle of numbing or escapism that is often tied to the use of substances, alcohol, and/or maladaptive behaviors.

Take a different approach and acknowledge that all vibes are welcome in our lives. We can accept those states and then allow them to pass naturally; feelings aren’t permanent.

Rather than setting a standard that positivity should be like a light-switch flipped-on at will, ask yourself or others to see both sides of a situation. Make a side-by-side chart or list of what could go wrong versus what could go right. We’re not negating the reality that things can and will go poorly in life at times, but also measuring that with logical balance of things that could go right. This opens our mind to cognitive flexibility without shutting out the very real experience of negative thoughts and feelings.

You should not feel that you must be in a cheerful place to be around those you love, nor that you must hide your true feelings to please others.

Others can help by recognizing that being upset or distraught it not enjoyable and sharing that they feel for you in that moment. Then, asking how they might help – is there something that could alleviate some of that darkness or a way they can sit with you in that place to make it a bit brighter.

“You’ll get over it” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

The idea behind these statements is likely focused on motivating or inspiring, but it can be anything but.

Particularly when addiction or mental illness makes life feel difficult to manage, or traumatic events or hardships create immense hurdles to our functioning, it isn’t as simple as moving on.

Recovery and treatment, the stress of everyday life, and the ups and downs throughout even a single day can feel impossible. When others say it should be not only doable but a learning lesson, it can drive feelings of shame and discouragement. It creates pressure that if only you were stronger you would not be bothered, or you must be able to handle every difficult moment without cracking to be seen as strong.

Breaking down, feeling our real emotions, asking for help – those are signs of strength. Bottling up and pushing through situations without acknowledging the issues at hand may seem like an adaptive survival move at the time, but it isn’t sustainable and takes a toll.

You have made it through your hardest times because you had to, and you can again, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy or you can go it alone.

“Don’t think so negatively” or “There’s always a silver lining you just have to look for it”

For those that are enveloped with depressive or anxious thoughts, it can be nearly impossible to see beyond the doom and gloom. More so, some situations lack that bright spot to hold onto.

Again, giving yourself and others the space and grace to be vulnerable in tough moments is important. It may be difficult to see at the time how something could work out or have any hopeful thoughts, and it is okay to put that to the side for now. With support, we can revisit and work through it together as we go. Just as things can seem better in the morning, situations can make more sense later, so it may be a practice in patience.

While effort and trying our best is a good pathway for continuing towards addiction recovery and facing challenges, there has to be understanding that it doesn’t come easily and we need rest.

By validating authentic feelings and focusing on how to provide hope without shutting down reality, we can move beyond toxic positivity and create a more supportive atmosphere for healing. It’s okay to not be positive all the time, we only ask that you keep showing up. At Steps Recovery Centers we know that life’s ups and downs can feel tumultuous and we are here to help you stay on track. Call us today at 385-250-1701.

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