Social media has always presented a filtered view of reality and, yeah, we could all use a little positivity in our lives, especially these days. After all, we've all been living the #pandemiclife since what feels like forever, police brutality aimed at people of colour regularly makes headlines, and there's an upcoming presidential election with potentially huge consequences.
It's a lot, and it only makes sense to try to throw some positivity into the mix. But experts warn that repeatedly being exposed to this false-cheery outlook when life is clearly anything but, and even relying too heavily on this tactic yourself, puts you in danger of a mental health phenomenon known as toxic positivity. Never heard of it before? Here's what you need to know.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Obviously, being positive is a good thing. "Pushing yourself to be positive can actually be a healthy coping mechanism, especially if you're first able to acknowledge how you really feel about the situation and then make a conscious decision that you are going to take a positive outlook on the situation in order to help you cope," says Monifa Seawell, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia. That's also true when you're in a challenging situation where there's no immediate relief or change in sight — aka now, she says. Forming a positive outlook can "help you mentally endure those circumstances," adds Dr. Seawell.
But you start to veer into toxic positivity territory when you're always positive, even in the face of some pretty intense stuff, according to Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast. "No one feels positively all the time...no one," she says. And if they do, "that means a person is using denial, repression, or some defence mechanism to ignore other feelings to always be 'up.'"
"No one feels positively all the time...no one - Gail Saltz, M.D."
Here's the big difference between being positive and struggling with toxic positivity: Acknowledging reality. "It's one thing to tell yourself, 'This situation is not great. However, in order to cope and survive and not succumb to these circumstances, I'm going to remain positive because that gives me mental strength,'" explains Dr. Seawell. "It's another thing to use positivity as a tool to deny the reality of your circumstances and convince yourself that the bad things that are happening are not happening at all."
FWIW, toxic positivity isn't just how you feel inside, says Dr. Saltz — you can also spread it on social media and to others by always putting on a bubbly, happy face in public, even when you feel otherwise.
Why Are People Engaging in Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity isn't unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more people are turning to it to try to deal with the difficulties of reality right now, says Dr. Seawell. At the same time, they're not ~actually~ acknowledging what's happening around them.
"It's just suppressing or turning away from reality, which will not change reality," says Dr. Saltz.
It's kind of hard to engage in toxic positivity when you're bombarded with messages on Instagram about how you should be taking this time to eat super healthy, work out regularly, increase your productivity, and be thankful for your family/job/health — especially when you feel like you're just trying to make it through the day without falling apart. That doesn't mean embracing any of those things automatically means you're struggling with toxic positivity. Instead, the danger is not allowing yourself to acknowledge that you have some emotions that aren't positive, too, explains Dr. Seawell.
What's So Bad About Toxic Positivity?
"You want to make sure that your positivity doesn't cause you to deny the reality of what is happening or cause you to become uncomfortable with your other emotions," says Dr. Seawell.
"Forcing yourself to be positive can cause you to deny the reality of your pain."
Also, no matter how much you shove 'em down, those negative feelings don't — and won't — disappear. "They just stay unconscious and have the power to create symptoms or behaviors you don't want," says Dr. Saltz. Constantly engaging in toxic positivity can even cause your stress to show up in physical ways, like in the form of headaches, other body pain, or self-destructive behaviours, she adds. And, of course, there's the fact that living your life in a constant state of sunshine and rainbows means you don't allow yourself to experience any other emotions.
Seriously — Research actually backs this stuff up. A 12-year study of 720 people found that those who tended to suppress their emotions were at a higher risk of earlier death, including death from cancer and heart disease, compared to their more emotional counterparts. And a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that — no shocker here — people who embraced and accepted their emotions rather than judged them ended up having better mental health and more positive life satisfaction were less likely to freak out when exposed to stress. (BTW, these tips to turning stress into positive energy can help, too.)
So, How Can You Combat Toxic Positivity?
You don't need to suddenly become a Negative Nancy (or Nikki or Natalie or insert-name-here) to fight toxic positivity - it's just a good idea to be real with yourself.
"When something happens, take a moment to check in with yourself to acknowledge how you really feel about the situation," says Dr. Seawell.
"It's important to make room to acknowledge your feelings because they are valid."
Once you acknowledge those feelings, Dr. Seawell says you can decide what you want to do about them. For example, if you feel frustrated that the officers involved in Breonna Taylor's death haven't been put on trial (*raises both hands*), you can use that frustration to protest or engage in social media campaigns for justice and change. But fooling yourself with thoughts like, "It will never happen again!" or "I'm sure it'll get taken care of!" is engaging in toxic positivity - and it's not doing yourself or anyone else any favours.
Dr. Saltz also recommends that you allow yourself the time to think about your own feelings. "Be accepting of them, rather than judging them as good or bad," she says. "Be curious about where they come from and why you feel them."
Of course, you don't want to push yourself into rumination territory. (Rumination, in case you're not familiar with it, is the process of thinking about something that's usually upsetting over and over again. People often get stressed out by ruminating thoughts.) To keep yourself in check, Dr. Saltz recommends taking time to acknowledge your feelings and then letting them go. You can even mentally visualize them flying out the window if it helps.
It's not just about sitting with your inner thoughts, though. "Some people find that journaling helps them to keep in touch with their emotions," adds Dr. Seawell.
"Other times, a phone call with a trusted friend or loved one who has the ability to sit with your discomfort is helpful."
If you feel like social media is fuelling your toxic positivity, she recommends taking some time away: "If you find that the constant stream of positivity on social media is causing you to feel bad about yourself or your own life then it's time to take a break."
It's also a good time to check your coping mechanisms, given that toxic positivity isn't a good one, says Dr. Saltz. It may take some time to figure out what works for you, but talking to friends about your real feelings, exercising regularly, or even just allowing yourself the time and space every day to wrap yourself up in a warm blanket and really, truly feel can all be helpful. "Have some methods of self-soothing and mood-boosting when you feel especially down or even build them into a daily routine to prevent being exceedingly anxious or depressed," recommends Dr. Saltz.
But, if you find you're still avoiding you're real emotions and notice that you feel uncomfortable experiencing any feelings other than positivity,
"that's something that would be worth exploring with a therapist," says Dr. Seawell.