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When ‘Good Vibes Only’ Goes Bad: Toxic Positivity Explained

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When ‘Good Vibes Only’ Goes Bad: Toxic Positivity Explained
"It's OK not to be positive all the time, and it's unrealistic to believe that you can be happy every moment." ~ Psychology Professor Julie Norem

A few years ago, I was t-boned by a car running a red light at an intersection. I was later told by police that the man who ran the light was named Darwin — which I only mention because he walked away from the accident he caused without a single scratch (survival of the fittest much?). 

I, on the other hand, had a lacerated liver from the sheer force of the seatbelt, a broken nose from the airbag deploying, a metal fragment that is still living somewhere inside my knee, a totaled car — and ultimately, thousands of dollars in medical expenses and countless hours of recovery. 

As I lay in the hospital bed shortly after the accident trying to process what had happened —  and also attempting to determine how I, a single mom, was going to take care of my then-2-year-old toddler when I couldn’t drive her to school, let alone even pick her up to put her in her crib every night — I’ll admit it: I was consumed by negativity and sadness. 

And as a result, I took to Facebook to air my grievances (and yes, I fully recognize in hindsight that this is the last place I should have taken my despair). 

This led to notification after notification from concerned friends and onlookers. “Cheer up!” one particularly precious message advised. “At least you get a new car out of it!” 

Another extolled the virtues of essential oils to “cure” my broken spirit (and presumably my broken liver, I do believe). 

Still another told me that “everything happens for a reason,” and that one day I would find value in this despair. 

Toxic Positivity in Practice

I didn’t know it at the time, but what these messages represented was something many social observers now call “toxic positivity.” The framework: We live in a society that extols positivity at the expense of all other emotions — a constant drive to push aside all negative thoughts and replace them with an emoji-embalzoned “don’t worry be happy” meme to serve as a salve for our spirits, no matter how bruised and broken they may be.

So what makes this kind of positivity inherently toxic

“Telling others to ‘cheer up’ or ‘stop being so negative’ can send the dangerous message that any sentiments other than eager delight should be repressed,” writes Nicolas Gilmore for the Saturday Evening Post in his article, “The Dark Side of Positivity.” “Enforced positivity ignores trauma and clinical depression, and it cheapens the inescapable and complex experience of being human.”

And in fact, a 2018 study in the journal Emotion, found that this emphasis on happiness as the ultimate end-all goal can actually inspire the opposite emotion. “The findings suggest that the overpromotion of happiness, and, in turn, the felt social pressure not to experience negative emotional states, has implications for maladaptive responses to negative emotional experiences.” 

Translation: We actually feel worse when we are living in a constant state of “But every cloud has a silver lining!” 

Positivity Has a Place

So why are we talking about this on a website called “Just the Positive”? 

Ultimately, we recognize that embracing a life of positivity is about finding balance. And if you haven’t noticed, our world is a bit imbalanced right now – chock full of reasons to be sad and anxious, all in the form of news stories and social media posts about murders and wars and mean-spiritedness and name-calling. So creating a website designed to house and deliver stories is an attempt to steady the ship, so to speak — to offer a destination for smiles rather than sadness.

I recently gave a presentation to a group of about 80 NCET luncheon attendees called “How to train your brain for success.” And part of that conversation was about a practice called positive psychology, which offers tips for rewiring your brain to recognize (and sometimes expect) positivity instead of focusing on the negative. 

I stand by these tips – but I also acknowledge that journaling or creating gratitude lists or surrounding yourself with objects you love in your home or office isn’t going to cure every affliction you may have. In fact, there are many times these tips won’t touch the negativity in your daily life. And that’s perfectly acceptable. 

"It's OK not to be positive all the time, and it's unrealistic to believe that you can be happy every moment," Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, told Newsweek. "That's not a character failing; that's a full emotional life."

Balance and Emotional Agility

As founders of this website, we believe in positivity, but we also recognize that false platitudes or an overreliance on “The Secret” will not inoculate us against negativity. While Shawn Achor’s TED Talk on positive psychology is one of our favorites, another is by psychologist and researcher Susan David, who talks about “The gift and power of emotional courage.” 

“In a survey I recently conducted with over 70,000 people, I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions’ like sadness, anger or even grief, or actively try to push aside these feelings,” she says in her talk. “We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.”

She supports the idea of emotional agility — which stands in complete opposition to the conventional and rigid view that all emotions are good or bad, positive or negative.

So what does emotional agility look like in practice? 

“When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don't race for the emotional exits,” David advises. “Learn its contours, show up to the journal of your hearts. What is the emotion telling you? And try not to say ‘I am,’ as in, ‘I'm angry’ or ‘I'm sad.’ When you say ‘I am’ it makes you sound as if you are the emotion. Whereas you are you, and the emotion is a data source. Instead, try to notice the feeling for what it is: ‘I'm noticing that I'm feeling sad’ or ‘I'm noticing that I'm feeling angry.’ These are essential skills for us, our families, our communities. They're also critical to the workplace.” 

We believe that true positivity in life is the acceptance of all of your emotions. And sometimes, it is choosing to seek out things that make you happy — stories about good people doing good things — as opposed to passively ingesting a constant stream of sadness and despair. 

We started this website as a resource. So if you need some positivity in your feed or life, this is a destination. But it’s not a cure. 

Because not every battle in your life will immediately result in a triumph over grief. We have to acknowledge that and be completely ok with it.

So should you be faced with a friend expressing negativity in life or on social media, Psychologist Jennifer Mulder advises us to “swallow our instinctive response to give advice or offer tips.” Instead, she has a great list of responses that serve to support the person — as opposed to marginalizing or trivializing very real pain. Among them: 

  • “I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. How can I help?”
  • “I know you’re going through a tough time. But I also know you’re strong. I believe in you.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”
  • “That sucks. What can I do to help?”

Interestingly, advice to “look at the bright side” and/or “put out into the Universe your needs, and the Universe will deliver” are noticeably absent from this list. Nor do we see the recommendation to purge said sad friends from your life altogether — we’re human, we go through stuff, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. 

If you need a place to explore positivity, Just the Positive has ideas. However, if you need real resources for navigating depression or traversing trauma, you’ll need to look beyond the surface where websites and memes and Instagram followers live. 

Ultimately, we believe that embracing positivity in life is about finding balance — life is good, life is bad, and life is everywhere in between.  

Darwin walked away from the accident he caused unscathed, and here I am, years later, telling the tale of toxic positivity that resulted from it. So there it is, friends — perhaps everything does happen for a reason, and this story is the value to arise from that despair. 

While I see it now, I can say without reservation: My broken spirit and broken body were in no place to recognize it from my hospital bed. 

Mikalee Byerman is the VP of Strategy for the Estipona Group and, as part of the Estipona Group team, is one of the founders of Just the Positive. She and the metal fragment in her knee now live in a state of complete harmony — except when it reminds her of its presence during inclement weather, when she thinks it kinda sucks that it’s still there. 

 

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