Ditching Toxic Positivity
No matter how I curate my social feeds, it seems that never a day goes by without seeing “good vibes only” somewhere on my phone, expressed by one or more smiling people. I cringe every time I see that phrase—partly because the statement is obnoxious and partly because I harbor guilt at having once been one of those obnoxious people.
There’s no doubt that gratitude and positive thinking positively impact one’s life, and it’s been proven by studies again and again. When I wrote “How to Be Well When You’re Not,” a wellness manual for chronically ill people filled with free and accessible tools for people to feel better, I reviewed countless studies about how much thinking positively can actually make for better health outcomes, and included numerous chapters of simple gratitude and positive thinking exercises for readers.
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My own journey through a half-decade of chronic illness was altered heavily by my shift in thinking. When I moved away from a mindset of anger and resentment over being sick into one of hope and thankfulness for the opportunity to restructure my life, it resulted in a huge step forward toward my physical healing. So I carried that thinking for years after achieving wellness, unaware of how fine the line is between thinking to improve your outcome and being intolerant to the real struggles of others.
In recent years, we’ve come to understand that perhaps there’s too much of a good thing when it comes to positive thinking. It can result in toxic positivity, which has negative consequences on our psyches. What we should be aiming for instead is emotional validation. What does this all mean, and how do we make the change? Read on to learn more.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is the maintenance of positive thinking even in situations where it isn’t appropriate.
“It often comes at the risk of denying our own genuine feelings or the feelings of others,” says Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer at Real.
While positive thinking in general is a great thing, toxic positivity is not. It’s the act of denying that anything negative is actually happening, and it can involve making people feel bad for having normal human emotions. “It is rooted in someone’s discomfort with emotions that are seen as negative,” explains licensed therapist and relationship expert Janika Veasley, LMFT.
“Good vibes only” is one example of toxic positivity, but there are other statements that also are emblematic of this harmful way of thinking. “Someone practicing toxic positivity might say things like “everything happens for a reason” or “just look on the bright side” when a friend shares something difficult that they are dealing with,”.
What Is Emotional Validation?
Emotional validation is about allowing people to experience their feelings and acknowledging that having negative feelings is real and often important.
Emotional validation is essentially the opposite of toxic positivity. That doesn’t mean it promotes and encourages negative thinking endlessly, though.
“Emotional validation is when you take the time to learn, understand, and accept the other person’s emotions and experience,” says Veasley. She notes that toxic positivity is a form of emotional invalidation because it denies the reality of a person’s lived experience. Vasan tells us that with toxic positivity, emotions like sadness and frustration are pushed aside.
Emotional validation is a concept that involves the understanding that feelings aren’t permanent. If something terrible happens in your life, you’ll inevitably move through the feelings that come with it.
Of course, you can’t successfully do that if you don’t allow yourself to experience the full range of your emotions. Emotional validation allows you to have your feelings and sit with them for as long as is needed for you to move on. By being true to yourself, you can move forward in your life.
Why Are We So Focused on Positivity, Anyway?
Even for those who’d never heard of it before, toxic positivity hit the mainstream consciousness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when so many of us felt constantly upset or depressed. Recommendations to forget about COVID and enjoy life regardless sat badly with those who lost loved ones or suffered from the disease themselves. “We’ve…seen a rise in awareness about toxic positivity as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Thinking positively isn’t new: the phrase “good vibrations” was popularized by the Beach Boys in the 1960s. But it was the rise of social media that led to the “good vibes only” movement, which is often centered around the idea of manifestation.
Manifesting is the idea that you can bring your desires to life through the act of thinking positively about them and willing them into existence.
It’s the main message of “the law of attraction,” and it has some pretty strong critics due to how it doesn’t acknowledge the number of people born into difficult circumstances or who have challenging lives that are beyond their control to change. Because most people can’t think their way out of poverty or sickness, manifesting has come to be thought of by many as an idea for people who come from privilege.
Social media enforces the notion of manifesting through “good vibes” by depicting successful people in settings like beach vacations or at expensive stores. “With the one-dimensional nature of social media, we only see the good outcomes and not the process or work it takes when people talk about manifestation,” Veasley tells us. “This depiction of manifestation leaves out the middle portion of actually moving on the belief,” she notes.
Practicing Emotional Validation
Toxic positivity is invalidating to ourselves and to those we care about. It encourages us to focus only on the positive, which can stop us from dealing with the feelings we need to work through. Practicing emotional validation is a healthier option for you and the ones you love. Luckily, it isn’t at all difficult to do.
Step One: Stop and Think
When someone tells you about a challenging situation, or when you have just heard bad news of your own, your instinct may be to respond right away. We have an innate desire to comfort those we care about, so statements like “everything will be OK” or “there may be a silver lining to this” can be quick to come out of our mouths.
However, that may not be what a person needs to hear, so it makes sense to take a moment instead. “I recommend briefly pausing and reflecting before responding to someone”.
Before responding to bad news or a friend’s difficult circumstance, make space to just listen. Be open and know that it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling.
“The biggest step to take is to begin to acknowledge our own negative emotions and how we feel in a moment when they rise up,” says Veasley. “When we can acknowledge and accept our own emotions, we can begin to do that with others,” she adds.
Step Two: Acknowledge Emotions
Once you’ve heard what you’re being told, the next step to avoiding toxic positivity is just to acknowledge the reality of the emotions at play. ” This can be as simple as saying “I understand you’re really sad”. She says we must avoid the desire to brush past difficult emotions.
The act of offering your understanding is an empathetic one, and it shows our loved ones that we care about their feelings.
Step Three: Be Supportive
Instead of telling someone to look on the bright side, or instead of urging yourself to just cast aside your negative feelings, offer words and thoughts of support instead. “Let someone share how they are really doing and feeling.” She suggests you “encourage them to be honest and reflect back that it takes insight and strength to do this.”
Making assumptions about someone else or telling them how you think they should feel, risks delving into toxic positivity. Instead, we should “ask follow-up questions to better understand how someone is responding to a situation instead of assuming you know how they’re doing.”
Step Four: Validate
This final step is a straightforward one: You want to validate the emotions being experienced. There are validating statements that can be used that many people respond well to. These include, “That sounds really hard,” “I can see why you’d feel that way,” “I feel the same way,” or even “I’m here for you.”
Let someone know you respect what they are moving through and that you are here to support them in whatever ways they need.
As for yourself, remind yourself that the situation you’re in is a challenge for you. It’s something you have to move through, and that’s going to take time. Whatever you’re feeling is temporary, and allowing yourself to feel it will help you get through it.
By Ariane Resnick, CNC and Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD