Toxic Positivity: It’s my party and I will cry if I want to

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“It could be worse.”

“It’s not that serious.”

“Don’t worry, it will be fine!”

“Think happy thoughts.”

You have probably heard these platitudes when something happens to you that is less than desirable. Possibly you have even used one of these phrases or a similar one to help cheer up somebody going through a difficult period.  When these statements are used the individual most often has the best of intentions.  They believe that having a positive outlook and not dwelling on the negative will help the individual overcome their dilemma. Remaining positive can definitely help keep you emotionally balanced during stressful situations. When we’re emotionally balanced we tend to make better decisions and have more patience, which can improve our circumstances. While this may definitely be the preferred attitude, is this really healthy?

The other day on Facebook a friend posted that her daughter who is a senior was upset about the cancellation of all senior activities. As a sign of support to the Class of 2020, people have been posting their senior class pictures on social media. However, instead of the seniors finding this supportive, it was having the opposite effect.   While the comments on the thread were supportive, other people that have commented on this situation seem to believe that it’s no big deal and there are bigger, perhaps more important issues (at least to them).  Another friend had posted that his son a senior really didn’t care about not having a graduation, which triggered a series of posts commending this young man on his mature outlook.  Whether you’re devastated or ambivalent about the whole situation, it’s important for you to realize your feelings are valid.

I thought it was interesting how people felt being mature and not caring about how this pandemic was affecting them was the right approach. It’s true that we should count our blessings and be thankful during unfortunate times.  Looking at the glass as half full instead of as half empty can be helpful in many circumstances. Keeping a positive mindset is not only beneficial socially and emotionally, but can actually improve the outcome of a situation.

However, staying perpetually positive and never acknowledging your pain or misfortune can also have an unexpected effect on people, especially when someone is projecting this image onto you. This is known as “Toxic Positivity.”

Toxic positivity refers to the idea that remaining positive and thinking good thoughts is the way one should conduct themselves no matter what may be occurring in their life. If you lose your job, don’t sweat it because when one door closes another door opens. Your girlfriend breaks up with you, that’s no big deal because you are better off without them. If you are truly unbothered by what has transpired, that is perfectly fine. However, the problems start to develop when you are forcing yourself to not feel your true feelings. If you miss the prom or graduation, it is OK to be upset. These rites of passage are something that we as people watch our older siblings, friends and sometimes even our parents experience. So it’s only normal that a person would be upset when they don’t get to enjoy something that was basically promised to them.

"Everything happens for a reason"

Disregarding your feelings can actually make matters much worse. When you deny your feelings and pretend that they do not exist you are repressing your true emotions and creating resentments in yourself. You start believing that it is even wrong to have negative emotions and you become shameful about your true feelings. Whenever you have a bad thought you start feeling guilty, because you believe you’re acting ungrateful about the awesome life you’ve been blessed to live. This whole cycle of emotions is completely unhealthy and will not promote active healing, which is necessary for one to move beyond a difficult period in their life.

So the next time someone directs a platitude in your direction to cheer you up, thank them for doing what they thought was best. But let them know “in a nice way” that what they are doing is not welcome or helpful. That yes you will be ok in due time, but right now you are pissed off and it’s perfectly fine.

5 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity: It’s my party and I will cry if I want to”

  1. So true, our emotions are adaptive responses to our environment, all of them. They are original software we are born with but sex role socialization shames sex role “inappropriate” feelings in children. It’s healthy to feel, to laugh, to cry, to be sad, to be happy.

  2. I enjoyed reading your wisdom. The idea of “positivity” and “optimism” is incorrectly used in our society causing many to even question themselves for having moments when they do actually experience “normal” – humanly – feelings. You’re right, Dr.Banister, we need to encourage people to hold space for one another and allow each other to experience what we experience. Thank you for sharing these wonderful words. I always look forward to your next one.

  3. I definitely feel like being more positive isn’t as detrimental as the constant negativity. The examples you used were major events that warrant being upset. While you cannot compare all events as being “major” or “minor” since it could be different for different people, I do believe that aiming for more positivity and then dealing with the situation with a better outlook can not only be healing but could also radiate that energy you are looking for. It’s definitely okay to feel sad, mad, annoyed, etc but practicing a positive outlook allows you to not dwell on it so much since at the end it’s only hurting yourself.

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