If your glass runs from half full to overflowing at all times, you may be unconsciously burying life’s inevitable negativity and succumbing to a mindset called “toxic positivity.”
And, while this inner need for positive vibes might make you feel better and in control, the long-term effect can be unhealthy, according to Dr. Javeed Sukhera, chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Living, part of Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network.
“I view toxic positivity as our natural inclination – conscious or unconscious – to blindly prioritize positivity over authenticity,” he said, noting that people often advise others to “look on the bright side” and employers expect teams to “be positive.”
He said “optimism is great,” but pushing through to positivity all the time creates emotional tension that is not authentic and can lead to potential harm. Instead, people need to manage a range of emotions, both positive and negative.
“We need to encourage ourselves to sit with the ambivalence of being scared and hopeful, which takes practice because we’re encouraged to fix things,” Dr. Sukhera said. “We need to allow ourselves to feel these emotions without letting them hijack us completely.”
Addressing toxic positivity can be challenging because the human brain innately defers to a dichotomous way of thinking when under stress, he said.
“For example,” he said, “we can be intentional about reframing situations by reminding ourselves, ‘I don’t know what the future holds, but I can try to be hopeful at the same time.’”
During the pandemic, toxic positivity became even more prevalent because people were under so much stress that they grabbed onto anything they could control, such as their attitude, to “cultivate hope and a sense of moving forward together.”
To help address your own level of toxic positivity, Dr. Sukhera suggested:
- Looking in the mirror and embracing your flaws and vulnerabilities. “We need to ask ourselves what we’re afraid of, and what purpose false positivity serves,” he said.
- Being open to honest feedback. “We will all have some level of toxic positivity,” he said, “and should recognize that we see experiences differently through different lenses. Recognize that someone will view things in an entirely different way and be open to coaching.”
In others, the process of rectifying overly exuberant positivity is somewhat tricky because you don’t want to invalidate the person’s feelings, Dr. Sukhera said.
“Toxic positivity is in itself invalidating and potentially harmful, therefore be aware of how we might see signs of toxic positivity in ourselves or others. We are all susceptible, so rather than confronting others, look in the mirror first,” he said, suggesting that you begin the conversation in a nonjudgmental way. “People don’t even realize they’re doing it.”