It was the end of the summer of 2020. The pandemic was still terrifyingly fresh, my social life had become non-existent since I moved home, and I was about to begin a long-distance relationship with a first year law student. The anxiety was crushing and I decided I needed a little extra help.
I thought about what my therapist would say if I told her everything that was on my mind. “That IS a scary thought. I’m so sorry you are dealing with that. Life is filled with uncertainty. There are so many things out of our control. And we have no way of knowing what the future will bring. It’s okay to feel anxious. That anxiety will fade over time. But for right now, here’s what you can do to help you take each day as it comes.”
Here began my search for a tangible reminder of all of these things I’ve learned in cognitive-behavioral therapy. Something that I could look to in moments of intense anxiety when my therapist wasn’t around. I wanted a bracelet. I’ve seen tons of bracelets with sayings on them, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something that suited my needs, right? Google search after google search brought me to hundreds of variations of the following:
“Hakuna Matata. Believe. Anything is possible. Life is good. Choose joy. Focus on the good. Inhale the good shit...exhale the bullshit. Be a warrior not a worrier. Everything happens for a reason. Be happy. All smiles here.”
...not quite what I was looking for.
That’s when I discovered the phenomenon that is “toxic positivity.”
Before I started therapy, I thought that if I could just get rid of my anxious thoughts and replace them with positive ones, my problems would be solved. Not only is this the way most of us were taught to deal with our emotions, it’s also become a cultural phenomenon.
Positivity has become a selling point.
When I was in college, I had a poster above my bed that said “good vibes only.” It was cool and trendy at the time and it was a perfect mantra for me. I was a fun, chill, and care-free person — at least that’s how I wanted to present myself. On the inside, I was suffering from undiagnosed OCD and anxiety. On the outside, I was trying to be the girl everyone wanted to be around. And that meant not burdening anyone else with this negativity.
The aspirations I was buying into – posters, computer stickers, graphic tees, and jewelry — were positively toxic.
Saying things like, “good vibes only” might sound like some lighthearted positivity, but there comes a point where positivity can become toxic to our mental health.
These well-intentioned phrases can end up causing more distress instead of helping us.
So, when does Positivity become toxic?
When it's used to avoid feeling any discomfort.
When we tell ourselves to just stay positive, we're actually just avoiding any negative emotions from surfacing. We try to convince ourselves that we're okay because we don't want to feel sad, anxious or angry. But, the more we avoid those feelings, the more unmanageable they become and the longer the anxiety will last, which actually prolongs the discomfort.
When it prevents us from actually dealing with difficult situations.
So, how do we deal with difficult situations effectively? We have to accept our true emotions. Acknowledge them, sit with them, and let them pass on their own. When we come to terms with reality, we can take action and move forward more productively.
When it makes us feel guilty for feeling anything but happy.
Have you ever apologized for being a “downer,” felt guilty because you didn’t feel sad when you were “supposed” to, believed it was important to be happy all the time, decided to go out even when you really didn’t feel like it because you “should want to socialize,” or said the phrase “I just need to snap out of it?” There is nothing wrong or shameful about feeling anxiety or sadness and it’s time we change that misconception.
When it invalidates someone’s true feelings.
When we try to bring comfort to others who are struggling, sometimes we – unintentionally – bring toxic positivity to the party. Have you ever vented to someone only to be told that “you have nothing to be anxious about?” The only way to educate is to communicate: “It’s actually okay that I’m feeling what I’m feeling right now. It’s healthier for me to let these emotions come and go on their own. The support I need is simply talking to someone who will listen and be present with me.”
Maybe you’ve listened to someone else vent and the only thing you could think to say was, “look on the bright side.” Instead, try saying things like “I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. Your feelings are so valid. I’m here to support you. How can I help?”
When we equate having a positive attitude to being a hard worker.
There is a certain level of expectation of employees in the workplace. We are taught and shown that when we arrive at our place of work, we should leave all of our negative thoughts and emotions at the door. We’re taught that a good employee shows up with a positive attitude everyday. If not, you are seen as not a team-player. We’re complex humans with a wide range of emotions. When we pretend they don't exist, we end up feeling worse, which actually inhibits our productivity.
The world doesn’t need more positivity. The world needs more compassion, emotional validation, and acceptance.
When we constantly encourage only a positive attitude, we're sending the message that feeling any negative emotions is a bad thing, but it’s actually healthy, and frankly, quite necessary to allow these emotions to come to the surface.
Tackling the issue of toxic positivity is a daunting task, but we have to start somewhere.
We created Presently because we need more reminders that support our mental health, that teach us how to effectively handle life’s most difficult situations. We need more reminders that it’s okay to not exude happiness all the time
We’re not here to sell “good vibes only.” We’re here to remind you to embrace all of yourself — the good, the bad, and the in-between. When we allow ourselves to experience life authentically, we can learn to better cope with difficult situations. It’s time to start respecting how we actually feel, instead of how we believe we “should” feel. When you accept that it’s okay to feel how you feel, you'll be able to use the clarity to act truer to yourself in the present moment.