Have you ever experienced a loss or gone through a difficult situation that has been met with well-meaning words from friends and family that offer little to no help? Did you feel hurt or frustrated at the lack of support? If so, you might have experienced toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is, in short, the overuse of optimism that results in the minimization of an individual’s authentic emotions. To break it down, it’s when someone uses a “positive vibes only” approach to address difficult emotions and often reject any negative thoughts. Toxic positivity can come from internal and external sources and is usually not purposeful.
Some of the common phrases associated with toxic positivity include: “Everything happens for a reason,” “This will pass,” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “It’s going to be fine,” “You’ll get through this,” “Never give up,” or “It could be worse.” While family and friends saying these lines are well-meaning, the root of the issue lies in the minimization and invalidation of the person going through a rough time. Instead of addressing the issue and recognizing the deeper emotions, they simply brush over it with well-intentioned words.
The main problem lies with the fact that toxic positivity can shame, invalidate, and guilt people into believing that their authentic human emotions are not valid. When the only way difficult emotions are being addressed is with a blanket of sunshine, it can cause repressed feelings and complications with addressing real emotional problems.
Forms of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity can come up during many difficult situations for both adults and children. Some forms you may have experienced include:
- After experiencing a loss, people often say “everything happens for a reason,” or “they’re in a better place.”
- When someone is diagnosed with a non-deadly disease or ailment and people tell them, “it could have been worse.”
- During periods of depression or extreme sadness when people are told to “look on the brightside” or “try to cheer up and smile.”
These actions are often well-intentioned and meant to be comforting, but at their root, they are platitudes that people use to avoid dealing with complicated emotions. Rather than offering support, a shoulder to lean on, or a safe place to express oneself, these statements can isolate and push people who are hurting away from help.
How are kids impacted by toxic positivity?
The basic sentiment is that children and adults alike cannot be all sunshine and rainbows all day, every day. Human emotions are not meant to constantly be stuck in a state of optimism. “Encouraging children to be positive in the face of difficulties can send the inappropriate message that feeling down or anxious is abnormal when, in fact, these are within the range of typical human emotion,” says Dr. Sarah Hornack, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s National Health System.
When toxic positivity happens within a parent-child relationship, Dr. Hornack points out that “responding to children’s negative emotions or difficult situations with glib phrases like, ‘Look on the bright side!’ can feel dismissive or lacking empathy. It can discourage children from bringing concerns to their parents in the first place, making future interactions less open.”
Children need to learn resilience and strength in the face of adversity, which comes from feeling all of their emotions.
According to Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family therapist practicing in New York, children who experience toxic positivity may grow up with a false sense of self that can cause them to feel worse. Additionally, if they don’t learn how to address emotions surrounding failure, pain, and loss in a healthy manner, they may develop other emotional and behavioral issues. Children need to learn resilience and strength in the face of adversity, which comes from feeling all of their emotions.
Alternatives to toxic positivity
The main alternative to toxic positivity is to acknowledge and validate others feelings and emotions. It can be as easy as asking how someone is feeling in the face of adversity, or asking if they need support. Being a good role model is also an important part of preventing kids from falling into toxic positivity. Showing support for friends, family, and partners when they are going through a rough time in front of children sets a good example.
Empathy and compassion are big buzz words that boil down to listening and being there for people. The key is to recognize their struggle and their pain and feel it with them in a way that provides support for their situation. Putting yourself in their shoes goes a lot further than placational phrases.
Non-toxic alternative phrases to use include: “I’m listening,” “How can I help?” “I’m here to support you,” and even something as simple as “How are you feeling?” Using these phrases allows the person you are speaking with to feel seen and validated in their emotions and in the long term leads to more positive relationships.
Remember that toxic positivity is all around and can be hard to avoid. Simply starting to recognize it and striving to improve your responses to difficult emotional situations is a good first step.