Self Improvement

Toxic Positivity

Positivity can be a helpful tool for a happy life, but what happens when we take it too far? "Good Vibes Only" is not a sustainable solution for long term happiness. Here's why. 

One of the topics I coach clients on often is how to adjust their mindset so they can start creating the results they want in their personal and professional lives. A common misconception many hold is that thinking positive is the key to feeling better. This is patently wrong and potentially debilitating. Here's why.

Telling someone who's sad or frustrated to be grateful and think positive is like telling someone who's got a migraine to focus on how lucky they are to have a head. True or not, it couldn't be less helpful. Sitting around trying to force yourself to appreciate having a head doesn't solve the real problem which is the migraine itself. It's even worse when you're hard on yourself for not being soothed by the positive thoughts and gratitude you're supposed to feel because you're somehow lucky enough to have a head. The only thing you know for sure is how crappy this migraine feels.

Telling someone to "look on the bright side" or "focus on the positives" when they're experiencing undesirable emotions helps no one and it certainly does nothing to support them in their moment of need. Don't get me wrong, choosing thoughts that help us experience the world more positively can be a useful tool but it's easy to take it too far at which point positivity becomes a toxic hinderance rather than a helpful tool.

Wiki describes toxic positive as follows:

"Positivity is generally seen as a good and helpful attitude for most situations, since it reflects optimism and gratitude and it can help lighten one's moods. What brings about toxic positivity is an unrealistic expectation of having perfectly happy lives, all of the time. When this doesn't happen, people "can feel shame or guilt" by being unable to attain the perfection desired. Accordingly, positivity becomes toxic when a person rejects negative feelings even when they are appropriate."

So even though having an outlook that generally skews towards the positive, feeling positive ALL THE TIME regardless of what's happening around you and then judging yourself for failing at this impossible fantasy is a recipe for disaster. In Brene Brown's Atlas of the Heart, her research identifies 87 different individual human emotions & experiences including shame, hopelessness, boredom, and so many more. Denying yourself the entirety of your human experience because you will only allow yourself to feel one particular way leaves you vulnerable to the effects of toxic positivity.

Fundamentally, our thoughts cause our feelings and our feelings determine the actions we take and the results we're able to produce. When we feel sad about a situation, it's because we've assessed that situation in a negative way. The solution isn't to assess the situation in a positive way. Not immediately. The key is to examine why that initial assessment was negative and what drove that default assessment. Sitting in the emotion and getting curious about it in a non judgemental way will help us understand what drives us. From there, we can make an intentional decision to re-assess the situation in a way that actually serves us.

Emotions are generated by our bodies in response to thoughts that are lurking in our subconscious. They can be the clearest and most informative data point to help us understand ourselves better. Ignoring the emotions we don't like does not make them go away. To clear the migraine, we have to give ourselves permission to feel what we feel without judgement but with plenty of curiosity. Positivity as a bandaid is not sustainable and will do more harm in the long run. Positivity from a place of true deep empathy and understanding of what drives us is the real MVP.

So, next time you find yourself on the cusp of telling yourself (or others) to look on the bright side, take a pause to tap into your empathy instead. Name the emotion(s) you're feeling and allow each one to exist in your body. Try to identify where in your body you feel them and how intense each actual feeling is. What thoughts are you having about the situation you're feeling this emotion about? What are you telling yourself about the situation at hand? If this isn't an emotion you want to feel, why is that? What are you making this feeling mean about you? Is it possible that as a human being, it's totally normal for you to feel freely?

Often times the fear of an emotion we don't want can be worse than the actual emotion itself. Don't let your positivity get toxic. And remember, you don't have to do any of this alone. Get in touch for a coaching session, let's turn this ship around.

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I sat down about an hour ago to write this week’s post on motivation (LOL) and in that hour, I’ve customised a PAX wardrobe on the IKEA website.

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