Toxic Positivity: The Happy Mindf*ck That Does More Harm Than Good

toxic positivity woman smiling in mirror
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Key Takeaways

  • Toxic positivity is a mindfuck.
  • The road to toxic positivity is paved with good intentions.
  • Always remember: It’s okay not to be okay.
  • Acknowledging and accepting your negative emotions is the key to overcoming them.
  • Mindfulness and self-awareness can help you mitigate your negative emotions better than toxic positivity.

Intro to Toxic Positivity

Once upon a time, I was in the “gutter of Life” looking for scraps that would rescue me from squalor. In other words, shit was not okay, as evidenced by the following:

1) In true American fashion, I was a 25-year-old with -$3.17 in my bank account and over $20,000 in debt.

2) Despite my financial woes, I came up with desperate albeit creative ways to afford expensive dates in NYC and the necessary alcohol to cope with the sad outcome of those expensive dates in NYC. (I am withholding specific examples as they will no doubt tarnish my image as a human being who’s grounded in reality, but just know that I got my toilet paper from work.)

3) Instead of buying 100% fresh-squeezed orange juice, I’d buy packets of Tang powder to mix with water and make my own chemically-enhanced version of orange juice, thereby outsmarting Tropicana.

Back then, to say that I was destitute would’ve been an understatement. And yet, I was able to get out of bed each morning and “take on the world” (so help me god) by surviving as best I knew how:

By telling myself that shit was okay, or that it would be, eventually. I weathered the storm of my own deplorable circumstances by looking into the mirror each morning and forcing myself to smile against all odds.

I told myself that I was going through a phase, that’s all. Things could be much worse than packets of Tang and microwaveable containers of ramen noodles.

Right?

flat lay sliced oranges in orange background

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is a mindfuck in which you ignore your negative feelings at all costs because feeling sad or upset is inconvenient, counterproductive, or whatever else you tell yourself to avoid staring into the red-veined bug eyes of reality.

Besides suppressing emotions to an extent, toxic positivity also requires you to convince yourself time and again that things aren’t fucked when, in fact, things are quite fucked.

Someone with a case of toxic positivity will bottle up their emotions and search the internet for positive affirmations to recite with the rote enthusiasm of a cult leader. When they’re in the middle of a depressive episode, they’ll say things like:

1) “Everything’s amazing!”

2) “You can beat this!”

3) “Just think positive!”

To make matters worse, these folx are keen on spreading toxic positivity as an antidote to anxiety, stress, and depression.

If they find you hugging the toilet in your underwear after a night of debauchery, with little puddles of vomit and an empty tequila bottle on the cold chequered tiles of the bathroom floor, they’ll tell you to buck up, lass. Things can be worse! Look on the bright side: Someone could’ve done unspeakable things to you while you were passed out. But they didn’t. (Or did they?)

Toxic Positivity Vs. The Power of Positivity

Let’s pause for a moment to make an important distinction between toxic positivity and good ole regular/traditional/objective positivity. After all, these two are mutually exclusive.

Toxic positivity, as I’ve inferred, does more harm than good. It’s the kind of positivity that encourages others to feel complacent at best or entitled at worse about the negative circumstances that are seemingly controlling their lives.

In the toxic positivity camp, you’ll find behaviors like:

–    Believing that complimenting someone while they’re feeling down is the same as solving their problems.

–    Believing that smiling and telling yourself that things will be okay (or having others instruct you to do so) is the best solution to your problems.

–    Believing that things can be much worse is the healthiest way to deal with your negative emotions. (Last I checked, this is called “denial.”)

Toxic positivity is about entitlement, not empowerment. It’s toxic because it continuously discourages others to take control of their own lives by supplanting negative emotions with false positivity.

By contrast, positivity acknowledges that things aren’t always peachy keen. Yes, life is unfair. Yes, things can be worse. Yes, there’s a silver lining if you root for it in the gutter that’s filled with your own pile of excrement.

So go ahead: be positive as long as you don’t mindfuck yourself into believing that things will turn out just fine by ignoring the underlying cause of your affliction.

Look, don’t get me wrong I’m all about affirmations and positive thinking. My homegirl was the late-and-great Louise Hay, the queen of affirmations herself.

I have blog posts in the QWERTYdelight Archives with titles like, “Inspiring Mental Health Quotes To Slay Another Day,” and “Epic Failure Quotes You’ll Need To Succeed” because sometimes you just need a healthy dose of positivity.

I can’t ignore the science behind smiling, either. A recent study conducted at the University of South Australia found that smiling, even when forced, can trick your mind into thinking that you’re a happy camper, simply by shifting your face muscles into a grin.

This isn’t the only study on happiness that proves the awesome power of positivity, and it likely won’t be the last. That’s why it’s important to differentiate toxic positivity and its variants (see below) with the kind of positivity that’s meant to complement equanimity rather than paper over the cracks of your problems.

woman mascara tears holding smile on paper

Other Forms Of Toxic Positivity

So far I’ve talked about toxic positivity as a mindfuck to cope with negative emotions, but this practice, which is more common than you think, can be doled out in subtle ways, even when life isn’t so bad.

Other forms of toxic positivity include:

• “I’m so proud of you for finishing your project early!” You might hear this from a tiger mom who wants her child to stop procrastinating on every assignment. Although well-intentioned, this statement is loaded with toxic positivity. Dear Tiger Mom, what if the child performs better under pressure, or gets better grades by leaving projects to the last minute, allowing more time for research (assuming the child is actually doing research)? Some people are just wired that way.

“You’re so pretty when you smile.” This one’s tricky. Even if you’re encouraging someone who’s self-conscious about their smile — maybe they’re gap-toothed or have pearly whites that are as crooked as Lombard Street in San Francisco (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — you’re holding them to a standard of beauty that yours, not theirs.

• “Failure isn’t an option.” Uh, yeah it is. And I have three reasons why.

How To Avoid Toxic Positivity And Deal With Your Negative Emotions

The best way to avoid toxic positivity is simple: don’t be toxic.

If you’re the self mindfuck kind, you’ll convince yourself that things are okay as your world crumbles all around you.

Don’t ignore your negative emotions. Instead, embrace the possibility that you might be depressed; that things aren’t looking up; that things didn’t turn out quite as you expected. And that’s okay. Count yourself an official resident of Anxiety City, population: 64,000,000, (i.e., one-fifth of the U.S. population.)

Remember, it’s okay not to be okay. It’s also important to stop ruminating without rising above your circumstances. To bounce back from negative experiences, practice mindfulness and self-awareness (link above) and make your woes say “uncle” for once.

On the flip side, if you’re a toxic positivity giver, remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions (gulp!)

Are you telling others to stay positive because you want them to feel better while glossing over the root of their problems? If so, perhaps you’re unqualified to offer advice. And that’s okay. There’s no shame in admitting that. Maybe you have woes of your own that need some nurturing. In that case, you can turn to a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, health coach, or some other licensed professional who can help.

Before wrapping up, I’d like to end on a positive note:

Everything will be okay, dear reader (as long as you don’t need to hear this.) 😉 

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