How to Avoid Toxic Positivity and Focus on Your Emotional Wellbeing

by Bestow Team | August 24, 2020

While scrolling on your Instagram feed or talking to a friend about stress you’re feeling, you might come across a saying along the lines of “just be positive!” These sentiments

While scrolling on your Instagram feed or talking to a friend about stress you’re feeling, you might come across a saying along the lines of “just be positive!” These sentiments are exacerbated by global stressors like COVID-19, but can also seep into more routine anxieties like job stress, a breakup, or a fight with friends. 

While it’s important to remain positive sometimes, being inundated with these messages of constant optimism and motivation to be happy all the time actually creates an underlying feeling of isolation and anxiety. This phenomenon, called toxic positivity, refers to the act of concealing negative emotions so you appear consistently happy and motivated. Trying to grasp at a “just be positive” mindset by forcing happy feelings can creates feelings of loneliness and stress.

A positive mindset is a good thing to have, but it can reach a potentially harmful viewpoint when that positive mindset is communicated as your only option. Negative feelings of stress, sadness, anger, or fear are valid aspects of a human’s emotional capability, and exploring these feelings with our loved ones or by introspection is an important way to communicate with each other and feel secure. 

Read on for tips about how to identify toxic positivity and readjust your mindset to feel okay with being not okay. 

What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like?

Though looking on the bright side can be helpful and positive, it becomes a problem when it’s used to minimize or ignore feelings. Warning signs of toxic positivity are usually subtle, yet can have a lasting impact. Bottling up our emotions or putting on a false smile can lead to increased aggression and stress. We’ve outlined tell-tale signs you may be experiencing toxic positivity below.

Putting on a “Poker Face”

Putting on a poker face refers to the act of hiding your true feelings or emotions. Typically, putting on a poker face refers to masking negative emotions like sadness, anger or insecurity so you don’t become vulnerable. In reality, suppressing these emotions can make it hard for you to process them and can create feelings of isolation. 

Chasing Happiness

Chasing happiness refers to times when people engage in activities that they think should make them happy, or share positive or motivational quotes to inspire them to feel happy. In reality, genuine happiness isn’t something that can be forced.  

A 2018 study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review showed that the active pursuit of happiness actually ends up having the opposite effect, and instead makes us feel stressed and anxious. 

Engaging in Comparative Suffering

Comparing your feelings and experiences to others is almost never the answer — and that includes bad feelings and negative experiences. When you or your loved ones are feeling bad, don’t attempt to make yourself feel better by comparing your feelings to others who “have it worse.” Allow yourself to feel sad, scared, or angry about the situations in your life that warrant those feelings. 

Pretending Everything is Okay 

Refusal to acknowledge bad feelings will only fuel them. Instead of pretending that everything is fine and you feel okay, it’s important to examine both the positive and negative feelings to  work through them accordingly. Facing the negative feelings head on will help you move on from them quicker and in a healthier way. 

How to Spot Toxic Positivity 

Toxic positivity is common among friends, families and workplaces. Here are some ways to pinpoint exactly what, and when, it’s happening. 

In Yourself

It’s common for people to ignore their own feelings so they appear strong or powerful, or so they don’t have to feel vulnerable. Ways we engage in toxic positivity with ourselves include:

  • Telling yourself that what you are experiencing isn’t that bad, and you should “suck it up” 
  • Refusing to discuss our feelings with others for fear of embarrassment
  • Telling yourself that your feelings are weird, wrong, or stupid

With Your Loved Ones

Sometimes, our loved ones need us to act as an outlet for their feelings or ideas. Try to listen without judgement and stop yourself from minimizing their needs. Here are some ways you might be minimizing your loved one’s feelings, or they might be doing the same to you:

  • Saying that other people have it worse
  • Saying or sending quotes that are overly optimistic or that ignore the problems being faced
  • Brushing off problems or feelings that don’t seem urgent in the moment 

At Work

Ignoring stress or burnout at work by trying to shield your emotions can have seriously negative consequences. Here are some ways you might be feeding into toxic positivity in the workplace: 

  • Taking on extra tasks and work that people ask you for without acknowledging that you are stressed or tired
  • Refusing to give negative feedback to your boss or coworkers for fear of negative repercussions 
  • Not taking time off for mental health or personal reasons when necessary 

During a High-Stress Time

During high-stress times like illness, death, divorce, or worldwide news events like COVID-19, you might feel pressure to keep up your positivity and not acknowledge how these things are impacting you. Here are some ways you might be experiencing toxic positivity during high-stress situations: 

  • Refusing to acknowledge the high-stress event by avoiding friends, the news, or anything else that might remind you of it 
  • Saying you’re doing well when you really aren’t 
  • Continuing to attempt your normal routine when you are feeling sad, stressed, or scared 

How to Combat Toxic Positivity 

By acknowledging your feelings and your loved one’s feelings, you can start to recognize how it is okay to not feel okay all the time. 

Communicate Your Feelings

It can be scary to feel vulnerable. But expressing your feelings and needs to others can actually help you improve your relationship with your loved ones while helping you feel better about your experiences.  A 2018 study by the University of Texas showed that people who bottle up their emotions actually end up being more aggressive, as keeping the negative energy inside resulted in emotional outbursts later on. Try reaching out to a loved one and telling them how you are feeling — and in return, listening when they need to vent.  

Invest in a Gratitude Journal 

There are many studies that show the benefits of journaling. On one hand, keeping a personal journal can help you put your own feelings into words and work out how you feel and what you need. This process can be cathartic, and can help you navigate tricky feelings. On another hand, keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to nurture genuine happiness. 

Rather than forcing happiness by reading motivational quotes or trying to “stay positive,” keeping a gratitude journal can help you reflect on the good things in your life and develop an actual positive mindset. 

Limit Your Time Online

Social media is a watering hole for toxic positivity. Instagram posts or tweets with quotes like “don’t worry about it!” and “She believed she could so she did” can end up being intimidating and isolating rather than uplifting. Plus, it’s hard to form genuine connections or have a genuine conversation on social media apps since people often only post highlights of good things in their lives and don’t showcase the bad stuff. 

A 2018 study by the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology showed that limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day can greatly improve emotional well-being. Staying in the present can not only limit exposure to toxic positivity memes, but can also beget genuine happiness. 

Practice Deep Acting

Deep acting is the practice of aligning your mood and temperament with how you actually feel, rather than employing a “fake it until you make it” philosophy and displaying a cheery affect no matter what. 

For example, someone who is surface acting would respond with “good” and smile when asked how their day is going, even if they were having a bad day. Someone who is deep acting would respond honestly and say, “to be honest, I’m feeling stressed today, thank you for asking” when asked the same question. During studies done in the workplace, those who employed deep acting were offered more emotional support and got more done. 

For more information on toxic positivity, check out our infographic. 

Our mental wellbeing is vital to our quality of life. By taking steps to acknowledge and validate our feelings, both positive and negative, we can help ourselves feel valued and supported by our loved ones while having a better relationship with ourselves. 

Taking steps to improve our support system can make us feel stronger and more validated overall. Another way to do this is by investing in life insurance — let Bestow give you a quote today. 

Sources: Life Hack | The Psychology Group | The World Health Organization | The American Psychological Association | Single Care | The University of Melbourne | Science Daily