Feel All the Feels! The Dangers of Forced Good Vibes and ‘Toxic Positivity’

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What is toxic positivity and why should we avoid it?

Can you recall the first time someone told you to look “for the silver lining” or “on the bright side”? Probably not. Those cheery instructions have been embedded into our emotional DNA ever since we were young, crying over spilled milk. That denial of any negative emotions? It’s called toxic positivity. “I grew up in a household that was rife with toxic positivity, and it always bothered me,” says Samantha Rothenberg, artist and creator of Instagram account @VioletClair

Rothenberg’s known for her witty comics, which bluntly (and aesthetically pleasingly) address mental and physical health, and everyday struggles. While she used to focus on dating and relationships, she’s recently honed in on addressing her own emotional and medical journeys. (“Let’s talk about feelings, self worth, & our periods,” reads her Instagram bio.) 

She’s not the only one ready to move on from the “good vibes only” directive that’s going around these days. There’s a movement to remove that rhetoric from our language — to stop trying to smile and stay positive during dark times, or “look on the bright side” of traumatic experiences. Instead, what if we just accepted the discomfort? 

“The strategy of always thinking positive has long been a societal expectation,” says licensed clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman. “’Cheer up,’ ‘get over it,’ and ‘move on’ are all things we commonly hear from others and say to ourselves, when we’re feeling down or anxious.” 

That sentiment has become harder to avoid in recent years. “Covid has been a collective traumatic experience that’s uncertain, scary, and anxiety-provoking, all of which are normal and contextually appropriate emotions during this time,” says Zuckerman. “Pushing that ‘be positive’ message onto others and ourselves during Covid not only enhanced negative emotions, but also invalidated our personal experiences. She insists that trying to “be thankful for your health” when many others are sick, dying, or struggling “can be an extremely invalidating statement.” She adds: “In other words, it’s OK to not be OK, particularly during a global pandemic.”

What is toxic positivity?

“Toxic positivity is a societal assumption that, regardless of a person’s emotional pain or stressful life situation, they should always think happy thoughts,” Zuckerman says. “It’s an avoidant strategy we use to push away negative thoughts and feelings because we don’t want to feel bad, even if these thoughts and feelings are appropriate to the experience.”

Toxic positivity can range from avoiding getting over a breakup by keeping relentlessly busy, to trying to convince yourself “it could be worse” when you feel pretty crappy about something that happened. These statements are classic hallmarks:

“But you have so much to be thankful for.” 

“There’s other fish in the sea.” 

“You’ll get over it.”

“Don’t be sad.”

But don’t feed badly about wanting to feel positive: Who wouldn’t want to smile through tough times? “Trying to remain positive isn’t a bad thing by itself,” Zuckerman promises. “It’s a problem when our efforts to be positive involve pushing away negative feelings that are very real and necessary for healing. To deny human suffering is not only unrealistic, but unachievable.”

Those “positive vibes” promoted on social media can be harmful

In addition to Covid, Zuckerman thinks the popularity of social media has led to a rise in toxic positivity. “Societal expectations and social media are undoubtedly contributing,” she says. “What we see on social media is a snapshot of contrived happiness. No one’s putting up pictures of themselves crying because they lost their job or burned the dinner they spent all day making. What we typically see is the best of the best, the highlight reels. With filters.” She points out that comparing our lives to what we see on social media leads to unhelpful thoughts, like Everyone else is handling things well, or Everyone else seems happy, so I should, too.

While toxic positivity doesn’t discriminate, those who have anxiety, depression, or lower self-esteem may be more susceptible to its effects, according to Zuckerman. “That’s because anxiety and depression are often the result of emotional suppression, or an unwillingness to just feel bad.”

What’s so toxic about positive thinking?

If it’s natural and authentic, nothing! “I definitely have more than my fair share of bright, beautiful, and truly positive moments,” says Rothenberg. “However, I try never to force a moment to be that way, if it isn’t what I’m truly feeling.” 

Zuckerman wants us to acknowledge and accept our genuine emotions, whether that’s happiness, sadness, or anger — but especially the more painful feelings. “The more we avoid feeling our emotions, the more that negatively impacts our mental health,” she says. “This idea that what we’re feeling is bad or wrong can lead to shame and guilt. It also makes it less likely that people will reach out for help, because they feel like they ‘shouldn’t’ be sad or angry. That impacts self-esteem, self-confidence, and our willingness to connect to others.” 

Sure, avoiding negative thoughts might feel nice in the moment, but in the long run, that habit halts our healing. “We need to feel our feelings to heal, and toxic positivity hinders this necessary emotional process,” Zuckerman says. She warns, “Avoidance or suppression of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can cause an overall worsening of both mental and physical health. This can include disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.”

Feeling all the feels has its benefits

Fascinatingly, a 2018 study found that “Individuals who accept, rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”

“Emotions aren’t something that can be controlled — it’s easier to roll with them and allow ourselves to feel the entire spectrum,” says Rothenberg. “Healing, going to therapy, and doing the ‘inner work’ has been one hell of a difficult but rewarding journey,” she says. “Plus, sharing my experience connects me with people who’ve done the same work, and came out better on the other side,” she says. “I hope it helps anyone going through something similar.” 

Here’s how to avoid toxic positivity 

How to cope when you’re struggling with negative emotions but don’t want to mask them with a happy go-lucky facade? Here are Zuckerman’s tips:

1. Don’t overload yourself with brand new tasks that you think will make you feel more positive. During times of stress, our brains are at max capacity, so we don’t always have the cognitive ability to tackle something with a heavy learning curve. In fact, it can set us up for failure. In other words, if you never played chess before your recent tough breakup, don’t attempt to pick it up while you’re grieving that loss.

2. Stick with what you know until you feel better. For example, if you love cooking, try some different recipes. Doing things that are extensions of our existing behavioral repertoire requires less cognitive effort and protects us from setting — and ultimately not meeting — unrealistic expectations.

3. Feel your feelings, literally. What body part do you sense your sadness or anger in? Sit with that physical experience and don’t avoid it. Running from discomfort only prolongs that discomfort’s existence, but feeling our feelings keeps us grounded in the present moment. 

4. Be mindful of situations, people, and thoughts that foster toxic positivity. One common trigger is social media, where posters are always putting their best face forward. If scrolling Instagram makes you feel worse, try taking a break, or reminding yourself that behind every picture you see, there’s a tremendous amount of planning and calculation. (And yes, filters and even Photoshopping.)

“People think that the only way to be ‘happy’ is to have positive vibes only,” Zuckerman says. “People then assume that any negative emotions mean the opposite. It sounds healthier, friendlier, and more stable to ‘be positive’ even if the situation doesn’t call for it.” However, she points out, “The alternative to only being positive isn’t being negative. Rather, it’s feeling everything that comes up for you in the moment: the positive, the negative, the good, the bad, and the ugly.”