07/19/2024

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While we all support positive thinking, it is important to recognize that this powerful tool has its limitations. Focusing on positivity helps provide perspective. However, when we try to mask legitimate fears and anxieties with positivity – such as those surrounding real threats to reproductive rights in the U.S. or growing concerns about monkey pox – instead of addressing and dealing with these darker emotions when things can quickly become toxic. Whether it’s a colleague constantly telling you that everything will be okay or a plethora of multicolored self-care graphics on your timeline, superficial attempts to magically dispel negative emotions are neither effective nor ideal for your mental health.

So, if toxic positivity is not the answer, what coping mechanisms really work? How can you prevent yourself from falling into the common quicksand trap of toxic positivity? To find out, we talked to mental health experts about healthier alternatives to toxic positivity. These strategies can help you feel better mentally, get some relief from the grief and stress associated with COVID, and keep you from feeling misunderstood the next time your worries are dispelled with an offhanded “everything will be fine, don’t worry”.

What is a toxicity positive?
Toxic positivity is best described as “thoughts that should bypass real or true negative emotions in favor of positive thinking,” according to Dr. Allison Forti, assistant professor of counseling at Wake Forest University. These patterns of thinking are often developed with good intentions, as many of us have been taught not to dwell on negative emotions. But they are still characterized by ineffectiveness and overgeneralization, and Dr. Forti says these do not properly place a person’s entire life situation or their full range of emotions in context.

Examples of Toxic Positivity
Some common examples of toxic positives include phrases like “only good vibes” or “see that everything is okay,” which, while well-intentioned, are not the most useful information for people dealing with pain and anxiety. Toxic positives may also sound like ……

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“Focus on the bright side. At least ……”

“A lot of people are willing to deal with issues like this!”

“It could be worse.”

“Why don’t you try to make the best of a bad situation?

“Try to smile – and fake it until you make it!”

“I really admire so-and-so’s resilience. No matter what they’re going through, you’ll never see them fall into self-pity!”

These phrases may come from someone close to you, or they can be internalized – you may find yourself trying to suppress them by speaking negativity to yourself. But if you take a step back, it’s easier to see how phrases like these minimize and eliminate the really painful emotions people are experiencing, which can make them feel more isolated in those feelings.

Why doesn’t toxic positivity work?
Positive thinking isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when it’s used as a way to eliminate very real emotions, it can become problematic. “There’s no need to whitewash the facts,” says Kimberly King, an educator, author and crisis counselor at the Rowan Center. “Toxic positivity removes the trauma and real pain that many people experience,” she explains. This is especially true during the COVID pandemic, when many people are experiencing more grief and worry. “Toxic positivity calms negative emotions, eliminates sadness and makes people feel pressured to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling with overwhelming emotions.”

Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author, says suppressing negative emotions can also have a variety of detrimental effects on a person’s lifestyle. “When a person is feeling angry, stressed, negative, sad or irritable, ignoring these emotions and ‘putting on a happy face’ can lead to additional stress, anger, irritability and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binge drinking, alcoholism or other addictive patterns,. ” she said. Ultimately, toxic positivity is a defense mechanism that does more harm than help.

What are better alternatives to toxic positivity?
Instead of avoiding or masking difficult emotions, experts say it’s best to embrace them and work through them. One way is to remind yourself that not all stress is inherently bad, suggests social worker and therapist Aisha R. Shabazz. “There is a great deal of uncertainty and stress introduced into our lives as a result of the pandemic, and that uncertainty is very uncomfortable,” Shabazz says. “Accepting that life is a mix of pleasant and unpleasant moments can help us maintain more realistic expectations.” It’s unrealistic to expect everything to be positive. Fortunately, King says there are other healthy ways to stay positive while still dealing with your various emotions. “You can do this by having family meetings to check in and communicate,” she suggests. “Review the lessons learned and the things that make families strong.” You can even make a list of specific things you or your family – or a group of friends – are thankful for. Practicing gratitude and focusing on communication are smart ways to move away from toxic positive attitudes and toward harmless positive practices, Kim says. But it’s important to first truly validate your own feelings and those of your loved ones, and to look for realistic and honest moments of gratitude; otherwise, you may fall into the “bright side” thinking characteristic of toxic positivity.

Another good way to deal with volatile emotions is to see your feelings as neutral, not positive or negative. “The more you get into the habit of not judging your emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the more you learn to see your emotions as important messengers of what you need or don’t need,” Dr. Manley says. For example, if you’re feeling depressed or stressed, you can see them as cues rather than judging yourself based on those emotions. Maybe you need to take a shower, spend time with one of your hobbies, call a friend, go to the gym, or make a new recipe. That way, you can use the negative emotions as a catalyst instead of falling into the “bad” emotions that you know will make you feel positive. “When we stop and slow down, we’re more likely to choose healthy coping mechanisms over self-destructive ones,” says Dr. Manley.

If it’s the people around you that perpetuate toxic positivity, Dr. Forti suggests trying to share your acceptance of negative emotions. “When exposed to negative emotions, people who regularly engage in toxic positivity may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable,” she says. “Let the person know that you think it’s OK to feel angry or sad, and that feeling and acknowledging the negative makes them more human and more fully connected to themselves and others.” Once we can accept that it’s OK to not be 100 percent positive, we can cope more intelligently and learn to take care of all our emotions.

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