“Anger is not ok.” “Failure is not allowed.” “It’s ok, don’t cry.” “Anger, sadness, and jealousy are low vibrational.” “Everything happens for a reason, so don’t be upset.” “You should be grateful because so many other people have it so much worse.” “Positive vibes only.”
Popular culture tends to grab onto psychology-speak and then buzzwords become popular. You’ve most likely heard about “Toxic Positivity” over the last couple of years. I know I’ve heard a lot about it. That phrase certainly gets used a lot in certain circles, some of which I’ve been a part of. It’s a valid and real concept, but it also seems to be used in a sort of backlash towards certain new-age spiritual concepts. To be fair, the backlash may be well-earned in some cases, but just like any other popular buzzword trend, there are probably more subtleties than you might think.
So, just what is Toxic Positivity, really? Where does it show up and what does it really look like? Why is it so toxic, anyway? Read on for some answers.
Toxic Positivity In Our Personal Lives
Toxic Positivity shows up in our family lives, our love relationships, our work environments, and even in our own self-talk. Usually, for our own self-comfort, we often encourage others to suppress their true feelings and instead to “think positively.” In our interpersonal relationships, it’s hard to accept that someone may be upset with our actions, or with the situation, we’re in. It may be difficult to hear anger, hurt, and sadness come from those we love. Often our instinct is to ask them to suppress their emotions by giving them pat responses meant to hopefully make them feel happy quickly. That’s way more comfortable for us. But it isn’t necessarily good for the other person, or for the relationship.
Our work environments, whether we work for someone else, or for ourselves, may be filled with cliche sayings intended to keep us motivated, to “hustle harder.” Motivational sayings can be of help at certain times. Everyone needs to feel inspired and motivated occasionally. It can be helpful to remember the “why” of whatever it is we are doing for a living. This kind of thing turns toxic, though, when we become so afraid of failure, or even of having a bad day, that it ultimately becomes dysfunctional. We become afraid to ask for help. We never evaluate our circumstances honestly. We spend money trying to fix businesses that should have just been abandoned. We take abuse from bosses and co-workers because we don’t want to seem like we’re focusing on the negative.
Toxic Positivity creeps into our own self-talk, especially if we weren’t allowed to feel our emotions as children. We beat ourselves over the head with things like “other people have it much worse than me.” And “I should be grateful” or “I must have asked for this situation, somehow.”
When Toxic Positivity goes to the extreme, it becomes victim blaming. The reality is that bad things happen, sometimes without reason. As humans, our entire range of emotions is normal. Anger, jealousy, grief, and sadness are all normal feelings for human beings to have. Trying to suppress them only ends up making them larger and more damaging. Instead of telling our loved ones not to feel what they are feeling, making excuses, giving explanations, and so on, it is way better to allow and even encourage them to express whatever it is that they are feeling. Sometimes that can feel really uncomfortable for us. Feeling uncomfortable is also a very normal human experience. Allowing yourself to do it gets easier to do the more you practice it, though.
Toxic Positivity In Our Spiritual Lives
For me, this is the big one. Having been a part of the new-age spiritual community for so many years, I’ve seen Toxic Positivity so often. Movies and books like “The Secret” have done so much to contribute to Toxic Positivity in our culture. “The Law of Attraction” gets touted as the be-all and end-all of living in a human body. Much of new-age popular spirituality boils things down to black and white, good and bad, positive and negative, light and dark, and there is very little room for nuance and shades of gray. And yet, as human beings, most of our lives are made up of nuance. We live in gray areas.
But to be a spiritual person, so it seems, we have to only choose positive vibes. We can only strive for the light, never spending any time with the dark. We’d actually be better off understanding that even if we are spiritual beings in human bodies, we have to live in these human bodies. That means we have to learn to navigate through all human emotions and learn to feel our feelings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, living in this human body, feelings are never permanent. Feelings are temporary things, as long as we let ourselves experience them and not try to stuff them down or paint over them with the positivity brush.
Another, perhaps even more damaging spiritual perspective is that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea is that if something happens to us it must mean that we called it into our lives, or that it has to become an opportunity to “learn a lesson.” Toxic Positivity says that we must go straight from the bad experience to figuring out what the lesson must be. After all, we drew that experience in for some reason so we might as well get right to the lesson.
I actually happen to subscribe, personally, to the idea that everything happens for a reason. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t allow myself to feel my feelings and to experience whatever it is, fully. I believe that the creative force in the Universe, God, to some, is so much bigger than me that I can’t possibly understand the reason for everything. And I can’t always know what “lesson” I’m learning, or if there even is a lesson. What if that bad experience happened to me so that I could learn to fully experience my human emotions? What if the lesson has something to do with knowing what it really means to be human?
Toxic Positivity In Our Social Media
I think the biggest source of Toxic Positivity in our culture today is social media. Social media encourages us to show up as perfect, happy, beautiful, rich, and secure. Social media influencers certainly only ever get to show that side of themselves, and we so often feel like we need to keep up with the influencers. Of course, social media can also be used to spur social change and it is often used to argue and criticize. But it is still not often a place where we can show up as our true human selves.
I’ve seen vulnerable posts from friends, and I think our real human emotions do get displayed at times, but overall, social media is much more a place where we go to judge others, complain about others, or show off the best parts of our lives. Our new car, a new house, the great new job, the wedding ring, or the incredible trip we just took are more often what gets posted. And that’s fine. We want to share the good things with our friends and family. But we don’t necessarily post to our public feeds about the difficult time we’re having or the bad grade our child got in school or the fact that our paycheck doesn’t seem to cover the monthly bills anymore. And that’s fair. That’s not what social media was ever meant to be. But, the fact is, just existing in the way that it does tends to feed the Toxic Positivity monster.
Social media is meant to be connection through sound bites and small glimpses into others’ lives. Although there are some places on social media where deeper discussions happen, the reality is that most of it is full of memes and quick status updates. Being real, experiencing our feelings in their fullness, requires much more than a graphic or a few sentences typed on our phones. That’s why Toxic Positivity is rampant on social media and can be so damaging.
Not Buying-In To Toxic Positivity
The main thing for us, as humans who want to find real peace instead of just positivity, is for us to allow ourselves and each other to be human. We make mistakes. We aren’t always happy. We aren’t always grateful. Sometimes bad things happen for seemingly no reason. And that’s ok.
Learning to embrace the entirety of our human existence can be painful sometimes, but it also makes our experiences here more full and beautiful. Don’t buy-in to artificial positivity, instead, learn to ride the waves – the highs and the lows and all the in-betweens that make up this wonderful thing called “being human.”