It has been proven that people who are positive and have higher levels of optimism live longer than those who don’t. But is it possible to have too much positivity? Can an over-the-top positive mindset actually do more harm than good?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
But when does positivity become an issue and what are the qualities that can make it potentially toxic? Let us explore the five qualities of toxic positivity and how you might be endlessly chasing a state of eternal happiness.
You May Be Wondering…What Exactly Is Toxic Positivity?
I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Perhaps you’ve even fallen into its trap at times in your own life. I surely did for a while. It’s when a person only expresses positive, feel-good emotions, even when the reality is clearly far from it.
Toxic positivity is an attempt to be in a state of eternal happiness.
It’s as if the person is a walking positive affirmation, and no matter what trauma may be going on in their lives, it’s nothing but “good vibes only.”
Rather than honoring their suffering, a toxic positive person seems stuck on the bright side, no matter how dark things may actually be. Sound familiar, yet?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a very VERY thin line here between healthy positivity and optimism and toxic positivity.
So to help distinguish the two, I have come up with five qualities or characteristics of toxic positivity to look out for. Think of these as warning signs that your positive mindset may be turning toxic!
The 5 Qualities of Toxic Positivity:
As mentioned above, consider these qualities warning signs that your positive mindset may have overflowed into a state of toxicity.
1. Avoiding Anything That Is Painful, Uncomfortable or Difficult
The first quality of toxic positivity is that it’s a running away from one’s self or one’s life. At the onset of anything that feels uncomfortable or difficult one feels a strong need to get rid of it. The so-called “negative” feelings are seen as “bad”, and rituals, habits or behaviors arise in order to quickly eradicate them.
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This is like somebody who wakes up in the morning and feels the slightest bit of anxiety and quickly sages the whole house, then takes a bath in essential oils, while holding rose quartz crystals to their heart chakra, all while repeating positive affirmations in their mind – literally trying everything and anything to exorcise the unpleasant feelings away.
It’s not that what the person is doing is necessarily a problem, but rather it’s the compulsion to immediately rid oneself of anything uncomfortable and have it quickly replaced with a “positive” feeling that makes it toxic.
It’s almost as if there is an obsessive need to escape as quickly as possible something that could be viewed as “negative” (more on this later!).
Sometimes we experience problems and lows. It’s all part of the deal, and it’s not necessary or useful to pretend otherwise.
I used to have a friend who was a life coach that I enjoyed discussing my life with until I started to notice how whenever I used the word “problem,” he had to obnoxiously interrupt me and say with a big, Stepford-wives smile, “You mean opportunity!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not disagreeing with the fact that the problems in our lives can be opportunities for learning and deepening our spiritual practice, but in obsessively having to interrupt me for calling my problems what they were at the time – real problems – I not only felt dismissed, but also felt as if he was not honoring my suffering.
Rather than compassionately listening and meeting me where I was, he was forcing his positive thinking mindset down my throat. It was not helpful or comforting.
If you have a piece of shit and you paint it with bright colors and sprinkle glitter on it, it’s still shit. So why not let shit be shit? Let my problem be what it is – a problem! We don’t need to wrap it in positive, spiritual wrapping paper to make it pretty.
Sometimes things just suck and are hard. Sometimes we experience problems and lows. It’s all part of the deal, and it’s not necessary or useful to pretend otherwise.
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2. Heavily Based in Fear and Aversion
The next quality of toxic positivity is that it is heavily-based in fear and aversion. A person who practices toxic positivity is terrified of themselves and their feelings. They don’t want to feel certain parts of their inner world and are terrified by the onset of anything that triggers their anger, sadness, sorrow or pain.
Whatever it is, it frightens them to the core and because of this fear, they try to escape those feelings as quickly as possible with a cliche inspirational quote or even a smile.
The sad part is, when left unacknowledged, this very pain or difficult emotion becomes the driving force of the toxic positivity, and the fear of experiencing that pain only exacerbates it.
So, out of fear of feeling what we’re feeling, we expend all this unnecessary energy trying to run away by using positivity, which not only disconnects us from ourselves, but also diminishes our ability to cultivate emotional maturity and keeps us from learning how to relate skillfully to our suffering.
I remember vividly having a toxic positivity moment in my own life based on this quality of fearing what is painful. I was in a therapy session in college, sharing some of the painful life experiences and recent struggles I was going through. Unbeknownst to me, I was explaining all of this with a big (probably creepy) smile on my face.
Of course, the therapist called me out on it and instantly the facade came down, leaving me with the intense feelings my smile was trying to cover up out of fear. It was a sobering moment for me, realizing how afraid I really was to show the true me, which, at the time, was not all smiles.
I was surprised at how hard it was not to smile when expressing my pain – a toxically neurotic habit I’ve hopefully let go of!
Toxic positivity is not only characterized by fear of what we are feeling, but also one’s deep aversion to it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we all need to “like” our suffering the same way we like long walks on the beach or snickers ice cream bars, but we don’t have to have such a strong attachment to our aversion toward it either.
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Aversion has the qualities of running away and of not wanting to look, and it’s this obsessive turning away and unwillingness to acknowledge our pain that becomes the issue.
And again, it’s important to keep in mind here that all five qualities of toxic positivity must be present in order for positivity to turn toxic. There’s nothing wrong with having an aversion toward difficult feelings. We all have that. Who wants to feel shitty? I surely don’t!
Just because we don’t like experiencing certain unpleasant parts of being human doesn’t mean we are a toxic positive person.
But rather when we don’t like something and we are afraid of it, and because of that fear and aversion we feel we must quickly escape from it and cover it up with something happy or positive, that’s when it becomes an issue.
3. An Extreme Form of Denial
The next quality of toxic positivity is that it’s usually a form of extreme denial. It’s when we grasp on to that inauthentic smile or those Eckhart Tolle quotes and positive affirmations as a way to deny our struggles and pretend that they’re not there, that there starts to be an issue.
It’s when we believe that if we just drown our pain long enough in rainbows and unicorns it will somehow magically go away.
Denial is literally life-denying and positivity becomes toxic when we use it in this way – as a method to spiritually bypass the difficult aspects of ourselves and our lives. This denial can turn into brushing off problems, dismissing feelings and even choosing (aka faking) happiness.
It can be expressed with sayings such as, “It could be worse” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Rather than embracing and opening to the suffering, toxic positivity denies it completely as if it’s no big deal, or even worse, as if it simply doesn’t exist.
But as poet Jennifer Welwood once wrote: “Each condition I flee from pursues me; each condition I welcome transforms me; and becomes itself transformed; into its radiant jewel-like essence.”
If we continue to use positivity as a way to deny our feelings, we will find ourselves running from it – always uneasy, always desperately grasping the temporary relief and always nervously on the cusp of falling back into our pain.
But we can’t run away from ourselves forever, and if we continue to deny our pain, we also deny our chance for deep healing and transformation, which is what a mature path of practice is all about – moving toward our suffering and becoming intimate with it, rather than running away from it.
The fourth quality of toxic positivity is that it’s often grounded in a dualistic view of life. This is when we are caught in the dichotomy of good vs evil, positive vs negative, right vs wrong. It’s when we split the world up into opposites, losing the potential for true balance and equanimity.
This demonizing of the unpleasant and painful aspects of ourselves creates unnecessary tension and puts us at war with normal, natural parts of our humanity.
Even worse, we start believing that certain emotions are “lower” and must be transcended to be “spiritual”, further fragmenting ourselves. It can become very exhausting and painful attempting to constantly ward off the darker parts of our persona.
When we turn our “inner demons” into something that’s not supposed to be there we miss the opportunity for them to guide us to the exact place we need healing and loving attention. Bringing the darkness into the light is very different than starting an all out war with the darkness.
In order to feel whole and complete, all aspects of our humanity must be included, experienced and honored. Yet, for a toxic positive person, the difficult emotions and feelings seem like a curse or a punishment; as if these things were not supposed to be part of their life.
They may feel like if only they did the right style of meditation or repeated the right affirmations these “intruders” would be eradicated and never show up again. But unfortunately, this is not the case.
The last quality of toxic positivity is that it comes off as inauthentic and feels phony. You know what I’m talking about. When you’re talking to someone and they keep telling you everything is perfect! It’s very hard to authentically connect with them.
No life is perfect. No life is free from suffering.
And to act like nothing bothers you and that you don’t have problems in your life, or that you’ve somehow magically transcended them all, comes off as phony. It makes other people who are struggling feel like they must be doing something wrong, and puts you, the “spiritual master,” above everyone else.
A truly positive person understands the pain of life because they have fully explored their own.
This is not what living a positive, spiritual life is all about. A spiritual practice doesn’t make you special. In fact, a true spiritual practice will make you, as zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck often used to say, “nothing special.”
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Pretending that nothing bothers you doesn’t make you super realized; it makes you indifferent and disconnected from your humanity. A truly positive person understands the pain of life because they have fully explored their own, and this allows them to be deeply empathic and compassionate to others who are also in pain.
It feels genuine and authentic because it’s coming from being vulnerable, something that a toxic positive person is terrified of.
Say Good-Bye to Toxic Positivity and Hello to Authenticity!
No doubt, healthy optimism and a true positive outlook is a great way to live a life. But, positivity must be grounded in reality. It must understand the truth that if it arises, it belongs; that even the unpleasant experiences are part of the deal in this incarnation.
Sure, things may work out sometimes, and it’s, of course, healthier to incline the mind to think this way, but we must also understand that sometimes things don’t. We need to face the facts that pain is a part of life, that we get angry, anxious and depressed sometimes, that things change and end, and that life doesn’t always go according to plan.
A truly positive person is spacious enough to hold all of it.
These are all normal and natural parts of our lives. With this wise understanding the difficult aspects of life don’t become the enemy nor are they seen as “lower” things that only “unawakened” people have to deal with, but instead are understood as part of the ever-changing dance and flow of this one rare and precious life.
A truly positive person is spacious enough to hold all of it, while still being kind, compassionate and in touch with their deepest values. It’s only by opening up to all of life, rather than splitting it up and warring with the hard parts, in which they are able to do this in an authentic way.
So keep an eye out for these five qualities of toxic positivity, and if you notice their presence see if you can begin the process of letting them go to allow for a truly positive life.