DULUTH — Optimism can lead to better health, but what happens when it turns into too much of a good thing?
People often default to trying to make us feel better when we share hardships online or in person, but encouragement can sometimes become invalidating.
When “Think happy thoughts,” “It could be worse,” or “You’ll get over it” is inconsistent with the situation, inauthentic, unrealistic or superficial, it could lead to feeling dismissed, belittled, frustrated or angry. It’s at that point the sentiment can be viewed as “toxic,” said Rhea Owens, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Toxic positivity is the demand that people avoid feeling and expressing unpleasant thoughts or emotions, paired with the imposition of positivity as the only solution to difficulty.
While well-intentioned, it’s unrealistic to think we can be upbeat all the time, and telling someone to look on the bright side or not to worry will not resolve their challenges.
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We’re in a culture that struggles with the nuance and complexity of the layered experience, said Shevaun Stocker, professor of psychology and human behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
What we’re aiming for is that middle ground, where we’re able to express the full range of emotions.
She gave the example of getting accepted into college. The joyful news can come with concern about the details of the transition. Same goes for planning a wedding; there can be frustration and stress mixed with excitement.
Instead of answering those concerns with a simple, “It’ll be OK,” Stocker suggested allowing for acknowledgement and possible solution. Without that, toxic positivity comments can lead to rejecting or burying emotions, and ignoring a problem rarely solves it, she said.
The brain has multiple operating systems. Trying to sidestep unpleasant thoughts engages the brain to monitor the progress and focuses your attention on what you’re trying to avoid.
Of course, having a positive outlook can be helpful.
There’s a body of research that shows greater optimism is related to greater well-being, coping, persistence, goal pursuits, initiative, physical health and stronger relationships. It can be an effective coping strategy, Owens said by email.
But, what’s beneficial for one person may not be the same for others.
For some, “defensive pessimism” — setting low expectations to buffer against possible unwanted outcomes — can help identify and prepare for a potential problem. It can help a person feel more in control.
Being in a chronic depressive state or having chronic negative self talk can lead to a reduction of well-being, but emotions alone aren’t good or bad, said Stocker.
Worry or frustration can provide valuable information to propel us into action or help us adapt.
And if you’re processing an experience that didn’t go as planned, taking time to vent and reflect is a valuable learning opportunity.
Zoey Moilanen, 21, often sees it on social media.
It’s where we’re often more focused on image over authenticity, and it becomes an “impenetrable wall of positive, good vibes,” the Superior woman said.
Being positive is OK. When it becomes invalidating or a way to shield someone from reality, you’re not doing any favors.
Added Owens: Without being able to have a dialogue or elaborate beyond pictures, memes and quotes, social media can create the potential to be ineffective, misinterpreted and hurtful to others.
There’s a time to be sad, a time to grieve, a time to be angry, but when you’re being toxically positive, you’re saying the time isn’t now, Moilanen said.
What to say
Stocker and Moilanen recalled times they found themselves participating in toxic positivity.
“I want to be clear; I’m not judging,” Stocker said. “I am someone who had to work very hard to let people express what they need to express. It’s something I’m very conscious of.”
“I’ve done it, and I try to be active in not doing it,” Moilanen said.
Here are some suggestions to sidestepping toxic positivity.
If you’d like to reframe potential toxic positivity responses yourself, here are some tips.
Acknowledge what you’re hearing, ask questions to avoid making assumptions, and reaffirm your support.
Tell me how you’re feeling. I want to listen.
What do you think about that?
I’m here for you.
How can I support you?
Would you like some space to vent?
If you’re on the receiving end of “Think happy thoughts,” “It could be worse” or “Look on the bright side,” and you’d prefer space for venting or to process feelings, ask for it.
Respectful, clear and direct communication can help lessen future incidents, Owens said.
Assume the person you’ve chosen to share with has caring intentions and wants to help. People who know and love you are looking for a way to show support, but oftentimes, they don’t know they’re contributing to toxic positivity, Stocker said.
Consider something like this:
Thank you. I just need to vent a little bit.
“I appreciate you’re trying to help me make sense of this, but right now, I need you to let me also be (insert emotion).”
The first step to stop doing this yourself is to recognize it and defer to self-reflection and self-compassion. Practice accepting your thoughts and feelings as they are without judgment to avoid internalizing toxic positivity.
If this is a challenge, consider journaling about it to identify what is making it difficult, Stocker said.
We lose connectedness when we stop sharing with others — that includes the difficulties and the joy. Sharing takes vulnerability, and it exhibits trust.
When we show up authentically and express the range of experience, it aids a feeling of permission or safety for others to mirror that, Stocker said.
It’s another way to sidestep the toxic positivity trap and grow safe spaces around you.
“You don’t need to give people your life story,” Moilanen said, “but just don’t cover it up.”