Toxic Positivity

I have often railed against those who have tried to encourage me by telling me to “think happy thoughts” or who tried to pump sunshine by telling me how wonderful life is.  It was as though they thought I wasn’t trying to heal, that I didn’t know about trying to pull out of a depressed mood.  I’ve heard this attitude called “toxic positivity.”

Toxic positivity is a name given to the attitude that everything is always just fine, and anyone who isn’t happy has chosen to be miserable; or else, they deserved their misery.  No matter what happens, feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or any other unpleasant emotions are not to be allowed.

The problem with this attitude is that negative and unpleasant emotions are a part of life.  They happen to everyone.  No matter how optimistic and upbeat a person tries to be, there will be times when he’s sad, angry, or otherwise experiencing those forbidden feelings.  Trying to deny this is dishonest.  You have to stuff those “bad” feelings; and that’s a bad idea.  Denying your emotions doesn’t make them go away.  It causes them to become subversive.

When toxic positivity is applied to other people it trivializes or invalidates their pain.  It denies them the opportunity to express themselves, to have a compassionate listener with whom they can share their feelings.  It may lead the sufferers to stop trying to share; it may cause them to feel guilty for feeling bad.  It likely makes them feel more isolated.

I have long wondered why some people do this.  The easy explanation, that these toxically positive people are assholes, wasn’t an option.  Many of them are good people, kind, gentle folks who genuinely want to help.  How did they come to have this trait, then?

It may be that these people fear the notion that bad things can happen to good people; that true suffering might happen to anyone, no matter how good or wholesome they try to be.  If it’s out of their control, maybe it could happen to them.  It’s the notion that life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Such a thought is frightening.  It makes the world a scary place.  Rather than live in such a world, some people prefer to believe they have some control over their fate.  If only they think happy thoughts, they can avoid the misery that so many others experience.

This positivity is fine, until life hands you some painful experience.  Then you either acknowledge that you’re hurting, or you stuff those feelings and try to carry on.  I suspect that this isn’t sustainable.  At some point, there’s going to be a reckoning.

Once I had this insight, I found it less painful to hear someone try to pump sunshine.  I understand that they don’t know what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it.  I can feel some sympathy for them.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.  They may learn some day.

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