We shouldn’t have to pretend that everything’s OK when it isn’t.
When I was laid off from my staff job a little less than a month ago, many well-meaning friends and family rushed to tell me that I needed to “stay positive.” I’d be back on feet if I just stayed focused, they said. Plus, they reminded me, “It could be worse.” At least I was getting a severance. At least my husband was still employed. At least I still had my good health. The undertone was clear: I should be grateful for what I did have. I shouldn’t dwell on what I had just lost.
No one meant to hurt me with these comments. They were trying to make me feel better. And of course, I was grateful for what I did have. I knew I was still in a pretty privileged position. But that didn’t mean the situation still didn’t suck.
Layoffs are awful. They’re even more awful in the middle of a pandemic, when job loss is at a historical high in this country. Finding a new gig didn’t sound remotely easy, especially when it felt like everyone was looking for a job and nobody was looking to hire. I felt disillusioned and anxious. No amount of positive thoughts and attempts to “stay upbeat” would change that.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with positivity. In fact, it can be a force for good that helps motivate you for the future. But positivity can also become harmful when it’s insincere, forceful, or delegitimizes real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or hardship. In this case, it’s not healthy positivity, it’s toxic.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or — my pet peeve term — ‘positive vibes,’” explains Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in, among other things, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.
Toxic positivity can take many forms: It can be a family member who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can be a comment to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have.” It can be a meme that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy.” It can be a friend who repeatedly posts how productive they’re being during lockdown. It can be your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear.
With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated. “The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience,” says Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, Maryland. “It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.” Karoll continues: “Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive. “They distract us from the problem at hand, and [they] don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health.” Zuckerman says that “toxic positivity, at its core, is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort.” But when you avoid your emotions, you actually cause more harm. For example, one older studyTrusted Source showed that when you’re asked not to think about something, it actually makes you more likely to think about it. And one studyTrusted Source from 1997 showed that suppressing feelings can cause more internal, psychological stress. “Avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health,” Zuckerman says. “Failure to effectively process emotions in a timely manner can lead to a myriad of psychological difficulties, including disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD,” she says.
Toxic positivity is especially harmful right now
“The pandemic is triggering our need to control and avoid uncertainty,” says Dr. Jamie Long, psychologist and owner of The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “With something as unpredictable and uncertain as COVID-19, a knee-jerk reaction might be to slap on an overly optimistic or positive face to avoid accepting a painful reality,” she explains.
But reality is painful right now. There are currently more than 3.8 million COVID-19 cases confirmed in the United States, and more than 140,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard. Stay-at-home orders have kept many of us isolated. Companies all across the country have laid off or furloughed millions of employees. Those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs have found themselves working at home. Many are also watching or homeschooling children while trying to balance those jobs. Essential workers face danger every day when they leave their house. Medical care providers are, too, and they’re under inordinate stress for months on end as intensive care units hit capacity and death tolls rise. We’re all collectively battling feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and fear of getting sick. In fact, about 6 in 10 Americans say that they’ve experienced strong negative emotions — like anxiety, depression, loneliness, or hopelessness — in the past week during the pandemic, reports NORC at the University of Chicago.
“[Toxic positivity] is invalidating the real hardships people face during this time,” Karoll says. “Putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment for many during this global pandemic.” “The pressure to be productive,” she continues, “leaves many, if not most people, feeling inadequate and ashamed that they are simply trying to make it through the day without a panic attack or crying spell.” And yet, social media is flooded with messages about how to take advantage of quarantine: Start a side hustle! Be productive! Learn a new foreign language or how to cook! Make bread! Reorganize the garage! Not everyone copes with stress by getting busy. And for many, these messages are harmful, leading to increased feelings of depression and anxiety. “When the pandemic hit and quarantine began, I knew that toxic positivity was going to be a topic to tackle,” Zuckerman says. “I found that many of my patients and Instagram followers didn’t realize they had an option to not conform to toxic positivity.” “During times of stress, our brains are full. We do not always have the cognitive capacity to tackle something with a heavy learning curve and take on a new task,” she continues. “As I said numerous times during quarantine, if you were not a gourmet chef before a global pandemic, why of all times would you choose now to become one?”
It’s OK not to be OK right now — in fact, it’s normal.
“It’s not only OK to not feel ‘OK,’ it’s essential,” Zuckerman says. “We can’t, as human beings, just choose only the emotions we want to have. It simply doesn’t work that way. Feeling all our feelings, painful or not, keeps up grounded in the present moment.” And in the present moment, we’re in a crisis. “It is a normal human emotion to be anxious during a pandemic. In fact, anxiety often keeps us safe,” she continues. “It motivates us to wear a mask and social distance out of fear of getting yourself and others sick. Anxiety is a very normal response to a very abnormal situation. We are currently experiencing a shared trauma. No one is alone in this,” Zuckerman says. So, she adds, “It is important to remove the expectation and goal of feeling positive.” Instead, you have to accept whatever genuine feelings come up, sit with them, and then let them pass on their own.
So, how do you deal with toxic positivity?
1. Avoid ignoring or stuffing your emotions
Acknowledge how you feel, and feel all your emotions, good or bad. Sit with them. Avoiding how you feel will only prolong the discomfort. In fact, it’s good to talk (or write) about how you feel: A brain imaging study at UCLA showed that putting feelings into words reduces the intensity of emotions such as sadness, anger, and pain.
2. Listen and validate how others feel — even when it’s different than how you feel
Everyone’s entitled to their own feelings. Don’t shame another person for their emotions.
It’s really important to acknowledge that others may not cope with things the same way you do. “When appropriate, you can offer gentle nudges or suggestions,” Long says, “but otherwise choose support over unsolicited advice.”
3. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK
“If you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, give yourself permission to rest or do something imperfectly, free of guilt,” Long says.
4. Remember that feelings aren’t mutually exclusive
“Healthy positivity acknowledges authentic emotions,” Long says. “It rejects the either/or mindset and holds that two opposing concepts can be true simultaneously.” In other words, you can be sad about losing your job during the pandemic and be hopeful about finding a new job in the future.
5. Be realistic
If you want to feel productive, start with small, actionable steps. “During times of emotional distress, do not engage in brand-new tasks that you think will make you feel better,” Zuckerman says. “Rather, expand on things you are already good at and familiar with. Stick with what you know until you feel better.” For example, she says, if you love doing yoga, try a different type of yoga instead of a completely new exercise. “Doing things to make you feel better that are extensions of your existing behavioral repertoire requires less cognitive effort and protects the person from setting, and ultimately not meeting, unrealistic expectations,” Zuckerman says.
6. Recognize toxic positivity messages
Usually, these messages are overly simple: “Positive vibes only,” “Choose happiness,” etc. Remember, what makes positivity toxic is that it dismisses other genuine emotions, Long explains: “If the message is that positivity is the only or best way to go, that’s problematic.” You don’t have to engage with toxic positivity.
7. It’s OK to be wary of social media
“People put their best filtered foot forward on social media,” Zuckerman explains. “Rarely do people post their faults, flaws, or highlight their poor decision making. As a result, social media gives off the impression that everyone is handling hard times ‘better than you,’ [and] this fosters a sense of loneliness, shame, and embarrassment.”In particular, she adds, watch out for social media influencers, because many promote toxic positivity by only posting their best looks, workouts, and what appears to be perfect lives. “Protecting yourself from toxic positivity requires critical thinking skills,” Karoll says. “This may mean comparing and contrasting media representation of how people are dealing with the pandemic with your reality.” “Recognizing that you are not alone in your worries and/or lack of energy or motivation can mitigate the effects of unrealistic expectations promoted on social media, news feeds, and blogs,” she says.