3 Ways To Cope With The Trap Of Toxic Positivity

Photo: getty
glum-looking woman with her head on the table

"Toxic positivity" — have you been hearing this phrase lately? I sure have, and I think it's crucial to understand what it means.

Toxic positivity is the concept that being overly positive, optimistic, and encouraging can actually be hurtful to the person on the receiving end of the positivity!

When life is difficult and the Susie Sunshine in your life comes at you with a cliché such as, "There's always a silver lining!" or, "Chin up, buttercup! Tomorrow's a new day!," you might notice an urge to punch her square in the jaw.

But, why is that? Isn’t it a good thing that she is just trying to be positive and encouraging?

RELATED: Is Too Much Positive Thinking Bad For You?

Why is toxic positivity so darn irritating?

You were probably taught in childhood that Susie is right and if you could only swallow your feelings and put a smile on your face, it would all be OK!

Seems logical, right? Wrong!

What's happening in this scenario is that Susie strolled on by and your distress made her uncomfortable. Doing what she was taught in childhood, she tries to "fix" the situation by insisting that you feel better.

This is invalidating, which means that she's giving you the message that your interpretation and emotions are wrong.

When you did what you were taught in childhood and thought to yourself, "She's right, I should suck it up. Other people have it worse," you invalidated yourself, which further compounds the situation.

No wonder it doesn’t leave you feeling better!

Toxic positivity is not the same thing as encouragement or positive self-talk.

I have no problem with using encouragement and positive self-talk to overcome difficulties and, in fact, encourage them. Is that hypocritical? No!

It all comes down to intention, mindfulness, and comfort with pain.

You can understand and avoid being emotionally hurt by toxic positivity that comes your way and learn to stop using it as a way to cope with the discomfort you feel when people you love are upset.

There are two sides to each situation. Regardless of which side you are, you may need these strategies.

Here are 3 ways to cope with the trap of toxic positivity.

1. Know the intention.

You need to understand what the intention of the positive statement is. Is it to shut down emotions?

People usually do this when painful emotions make them uncomfortable. They don't know what to do, so they try to fix it by being overly encouraging.

Positivity used to try to shut down emotions is toxic positivity.

If, on the other hand, someone's positivity is an effort to jazz you up to overcome a situation that you (or they) are feeling nervous about, then that is encouragement. 

Pay attention to the intention of the words. Even if they're hurtful, that often isn’t the goal.

2. Evaluate if the words are used mindfully or mindlessly.

If the words just fly out of your (or their) mouth without stopping to check in on the intention or outcome, it's likely going to be an invalidating statement, which could be perceived as toxic positivity.

If you stop and think, "What would I want to hear in this situation? Do my feelings (or their feelings) make sense?" it's likely going to be a more effective comment.

It's perfectly acceptable to say out loud, "That’s a serious situation. Let me think about it for a minute before I respond," if you indeed need time to think.

RELATED: Is Saying ‘Positive Vibes Only’ Bad? Why You Shouldn't Reject People's Negative Vibes

3. Understand that pain is a normal part of life.

Pain will happen to you and your loved ones — both emotional and physical. You need to work hard to accept that being around yourself and others when they are in pain is OK!

It's OK to sit with someone (or yourself) in a painful situation and just be in it. It can even be helpful to call out what you see: "This situation is difficult," or, "That was a painful experience."

You can do this without trying to swoop in and be the fixer! People appreciate you seeing their pain and naming it — it puts it into perspective and lets them know that they aren’t overreacting.

Always offer validation instead of false positivity. 

In those moments, offer validation. Say statements like, "I see you and it makes sense to me," and then zip it. That is all!

Validation means that you communicate to them (or to yourself) that the feelings make sense. You can always ask the person if they would like help problem-solving the scenario, but you need to be open to them saying "no."

Instead of saying, "Smile!" or, "Cheer up!" say, "It’s hard to feel that way. I’m here if you’d like to spend some time together."

Instead of saying, "Look for the silver lining," say, "Being disappointed is painful."

Instead of saying, "You could have it so much worse," say, "I’m sorry you’re experiencing that."

I encourage you to read and share this article with a close friend so that the two of you can openly discuss how to best handle situations in your relationship.

Explore together times that you have used toxic positivity and times where you have been more validating. What were the outcomes?

RELATED: Forget The ‘Happiness Hype’ — Build Your Own Version Of Happiness, Instead

Alexandria Fields, MSW, LISW-S, is a therapist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the founder of Your Mental Restoration. You can find her on the Your Mental Restoration website or check out her recently published book Adulting Well: Utilizing the Theories and Strategies of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.