Toxic Positivity: The Lie That Lies Behind 'Life Is Good'

Illustration Credits: Natalya Lobanova/ The Newyorker

By Wasim Kakroo

I am not a pessimistic person. In fact, I am a firm believer in the undeniable power of positivity and optimism. While there is something good about having a positive outlook on life, it is also possible to become addicted to the sickeningly sweet nectar of cliches like “Life is good!"

Toxic positivity is the negative fallout of positive emotions.

It is the excessive and ineffective generalisation of a pleasant, optimistic state to all situations. Toxic positivity leads to denial, minimization, and invalidation of genuine human emotional experience.

When positivity is used to cover up or hide the human experience, it becomes toxic, just like anything done in excess. We fall prey to a state of denial and repressed emotions when we deny the presence of certain feelings. The fact is that humans have flaws. We become envious, angry, resentful, and greedy. Sometimes life simply sucks. We undermine the legitimacy of a genuine human experience by claiming to be "happy all day."

Signs of Toxic Positivity

To help you understand how toxic positivity manifests itself in everyday life, I have compiled a list of typical expressions and experiences.

  1. Hide/misrepresent your genuine feelings
  2. Attempting to "simply get on with it" by stuffing/ignorantly disregarding a feeling (s)
  3. Feeling guilty for feeling the way you do
  4. Using "feel nice" quotations or comments to minimise other people's experiences
  5. Attempting to provide someone with perspective (e.g., "it could be worse") rather than validating their emotional experience
  6. Shaming others for showing frustration or anything other than positivity

Now, how does Toxic Positivity have negative consequences on our health?

Shame

Forcing a positive view on pain encourages people to remain silent about their problems. Most of us don't want to be perceived as  "bad," therefore when given the option of A) being brave and honest or B) pretending that everything is fine, we may be inclined to choose the latter.

In several of her books, lectures, and interviews, author and researcher Brené Brown explains that the fuel of shame is silence, concealment, and judgement. In other words, if there is concealment, secrecy, and denial, shame is usually controlling the person’s life.

Shame is a devastating emotion for the human spirit and one of the most unpleasant feelings we may experience. Often, we are unaware that we are feeling shame.

If you feel you have something in your life that you think other people should not know whether it's a circumstance, a mood, or an event, there's a good chance you're ashamed of it.

Suppressed Emotions

Researches suggest that suppressing or rejecting emotions increases physical tension and/or makes it more difficult to escape upsetting thoughts and feelings.  For example, in one study, participants were split into two groups and made to watch distressing medical procedure films while their stress reactions were assessed (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production). The first set of individuals was instructed to watch the videos while expressing their emotions, while the second group was instructed to watch the films while acting as if nothing was disturbing them, i.e., they were not allowed to express their emotions about the procedure.

Participants who concealed their feelings (behaved as if nothing was bothering them) had considerably higher physiological arousal levels. The emotional suppressors may have appeared calm and collected on the outside, but stress was building on the inside!

These studies suggest that expressing a wide range of emotions (including the "not-so-positive" ones), expressing our feelings in terms of words, and using facial expressions to emote (yes, including crying) can help us control our stress response.

We develop a phoney face or public image for the world because we don't want the world to know who we really are.  We can occasionally appear cheerful, with a pleasing smile on our face. We disconnect from ourselves when we hide our negative emotions like that. The truth is that life can be painful at times. If you're upset, and you don't admit it, your anger will be buried deep within your body. As previously said, suppressed emotions might give rise to emotions such as anxiety, depression, or even physical illness in the future.

It's important to recognise and move our emotions out of our bodies in order to acknowledge their reality. This is what keeps us mentally sound, healthy, and free of stress that suppressing the truth causes. We embrace all of ourselves, the good, the bad, and the ugly, when we honour our emotions. Accepting ourselves exactly as we are is the key to having a healthy emotional life.

Isolation and Other Relationship Issues

We begin to live artificially with ourselves and with the world when we reject who we are. We lose contact with ourselves, which makes it harder for others to relate to us. On the outside, we may appear invincible, but on the inside, we're just scared little teddy bears craving for a cuddle.  Have you ever been around a person who tells you to "just think positive thoughts and be happy"? How comfortable are you with them in expressing your inner self about your deepest emotions?

Even if the individual has the purest of intentions, they are subconsciously giving the message that "I allow only positive emotions to be expressed".  As a result, expressing anything other than "positive emotions" around them is really difficult. Thus, you find yourself following the unspoken restrictions that "I can only be a specific kind of person with you; I can't be myself."

Your relationship with yourself is frequently mirrored in your relationships with others. How can you ever be able to have space for someone else expressing real, authentic emotions in your presence if you can't be honest about your own feelings?

By encouraging a fake emotional world, we attract fake intimacy and fake connections.

Being a healthy human being entails being aware of oneself and how one presents oneself in the world. If you see yourself as someone who spreads toxic positivity, it's time to stop. By maintaining this monochrome worldview, you are harming yourself and others you care about the most. Rather than advocating for and practicing toxic positivity, try for balance and acceptance of both positive and negative emotions so that life becomes colorful and authentic.

If toxic positivity is influencing you, I recommend you to distance yourself in a healthy way from anyone who is judgmental about your real emotional experience. We only get one opportunity at this wonderful, difficult, imperfect life — embrace it wholeheartedly, accept all types of emotions and you'll reap the benefits of abundant liveliness.


The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar) at Kashmir Life Line, a free mental health counseling service. Author can be reached at [email protected]

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