Toxic Positivity Seen by 67.8% of Participants in One Week

Table of Contents

Here’s What Happened

Just this week, someone said twice in one exchange, “Enjoy the beautiful day.” Not a one-off; more a pattern of communication for this awkwardly upbeat individual. Toxic Positivity? Considering I had just said that I was feeling heavy hearted about Ukraine, perhaps. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

I actually did not want to “enjoy the beautiful day,” no matter how many times this person told me to. All I wanted was to feel what I felt, which was profoundly sad.

My father, who died when I was 15 years old, fought in WWII, so I imagine there was a bit of missing my dad in the mix too.

Now, this did not mean that I would not do good work that day. My work is always top of mind and heart, precious to me, no matter what is going on in the world.

Nor did it even mean that I would not appreciate all of my good fortune in this life, as I do every day. As one fine mentor once put it, “It is possible to be happy and sad at the same time.” In my case on that day, I would say grateful and sad.

I just didn’t want anyone telling me how to feel. So the words, “Enjoy the beautiful day,” in that context felt toxic to me. It felt like a “cheer up,” when what I wanted for myself was a time to feel pensive and sad on that day no matter what the weather was.

What’s really interesting here is that, although 74.7% of participants in one study never heard of toxic positivity, once it was defined for them, 67.8% could identify it having happened to them over the prior week.

So, what is it?

What is Toxic Positivity?

Here is a definition from VeryWell Mind:

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.

To repeat: there are times when positive thinking is a plus. And for those times, did you know that you can go positive simply by putting a smile on your face.

The idea here is that when we smile on purpose, we change the musculature of the face, which then fakes out the brain into thinking you are happy, so it releases happy hormones, and Voila! there you are — happier than you were at the start.

And why would we want to do that?

Benefits of Positivity

From the Mayo Clinic, here are some health benefits that positive thinking may provide — emphasis on the word “may” because there are benefits to negativity too, (coming up next):

  • Increased life span)
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower levels of distress and pain
  • Greater resistance to illnesses
  • Better psychological and physical well-being
  • Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Reduced risk of death from cancer
  • Reduced risk of death from respiratory conditions
  • Reduced risk of death from infections
  • Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

What could possibly beat all of that? Well, let’s take a look.

Benefits of Negativity

There is some evidence that certain people who worry more live longer:

Neurotic people who reported their health being fair or poor tended to live longer, and these participants had lower mortality from all causes and from cancer. Those reporting good or excellent health, however, didn’t seem to benefit from being neurotic.

One interpretation could be that, when there really are health concerns, anxiety and worry may be exactly what gets people to the health care they really do need, so they can live a longer life.

But then, what would be a right amount of positivity or negativity?

In other words, how do we regulate both positive and negative emotion so we are not toxic on either end.

Regulating Emotion

Big hearted people may mean well when they try to impose positivity on others. They care, and are trying to spare the other pain. Smaller hearted people may want the other person to knock it off and put a smile on their face because it is interfering with their own denial of how bad things really are. So, it’s not about you, but more that they are trying to manage their own pain.

But you’ve likely heard how bad things can get in families, organizations, nations too; when people only want to deal with what makes them feel good, true or not. That’s when positivity gets ultra-toxic.

When that happens, it is not nice. It is dismissive. It can be dangerous. And it does not work.

There is a saying, ‘What we resist persists.’ Resisting negative emotion may bury it for a while, until eventually someone or something blows, or someone gets sick from the heightened cortisol levels associated with the stress of excessive denial.

And I have posted previously on the cognitive and other types of impairments we suffer when we try not to feel what we feel.

But here is the good news. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who, would you believe, studied her own stroke, while it was happening. From Dr. Bolte Taylor we learn that, although there is variation of course, typically an emotion lasts about 90 seconds.

That’s it! About 90 seconds. If we let it. But no, too often we either bury it, making it stronger, or pick up the emotion and chew on it like a dog with a bone, so it can last all day, all week, all month, all year, or for the rest of our lives.

What if…when the emotion arises:

  • We take our 3 polyvagal breaths to put the executive brain in charge (‘how to’ on my website in “Complimentary…” box, click Power Breathing in the pulldown).

and then,

  • We ask ourselves this question: “Is there something to be done here?” If there is, get it done, and let the emotion pass. If there is nothing to do (maybe you already did it, maybe it is someone else’s to do, maybe there simply is nothing to be done) then we breathe, until it passes, which it will if we let it, like a cloud in the sky.

Emotions come and go if we let them. They are data that we can use to guide us in our lives.

Our own emotions are 100% ours to control. And, I don’t know a single human being who likes to be told what that emotion should be. They may want help in naming the emotion, but that is different from being told what it should be.

So, if and when you may notice that someone is imposing toxic positivity on you — or that you are doing it to yourself or another, give this a try and let us know what you find.

Warm wishes,

Madelaine

Photo by Pixels Donald Ton

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Licensed Psychotherapist, Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach. LICSW, MBA, BCC

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Madelaine Weiss

Madelaine Weiss

Licensed Psychotherapist, Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach. LICSW, MBA, BCC

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