How many times have you seen it? Friends and acquaintances who appear to have it all together, who project a perfect life to the public and on social media, who sing the praises of their experiences and their significant others, who share quippy and pointed positivity platitudes, only to reveal in a shocking bombshell that they’re getting divorced, have lost their jobs, are suffering from a rare disease, are struggling with addiction, have suddenly and out of nowhere lost all control.
Maybe this scenario hits closer to home. Maybe you’re the one who desperately strives to portray your life as butterflies and rainbows, who avoids any mention of the less-than-stellar moments, who hides behind a false facade.
Enter the form of self-care known as positivity culture. It posits that if you just remain positive, good things will come to you. If you think positive thoughts, power through that which ails you by countering it with all the things you have to be grateful for, you will come out the other side more balanced, healthier, happier.
But the trouble with positivity culture is that it’s toxic to a great number of people. Hence the term “toxic positivity.”
Toxic positivity essentially has the opposite impact on many people. It shames those with anxiety and depression and the occasional — and perfectly natural — negative emotion into thinking if they would just think on the sunny side of things, they could change their emotions and become a more fulfilled person.
The problem with that is emotions are not self-mutable. You feel what you feel, and no amount of ignoring it in favor of the positive is going to change that. Rather, it has the potential to make people feel guilty for being unable to radically transform their emotions or the chemical imbalances in their brains, thrusting them into deeper despair.
According to two studies published in Motivation and Emotion, the official journal of the Society for the Study of Motivation, this push to think positively in order to magically influence a happier state of mind may have dire consequences. Researchers discovered that people who engage in the opposite — in leaning into their negative emotions and states of mind — fare far better than those who pretend everything is A-OK.
The conclusions of their study found that “when people acknowledge and address negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and have more appropriate responses” and “people who think emotions are easily influenced and changeable are more likely to blame themselves for the negative emotions they feel than people who think emotions are fixed and out of their control.”
And these researchers are not the first to come to similar conclusions.
Studies dating back to the early 2000s have resulted in similar findings, including:
- When people think others expect them to not feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions
- Forcing people to use positive statements such as ‘I’m a lovable person’ can make some feel more insecure
- Visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it
- People in a negative mood produce better quality and more persuasive arguments than people in a positive mood, and that negative moods can improve memory
- Positive thinking can become a way of avoiding necessary action
To me, this makes perfect sense. I am always wary of — dare I say mistrusting of — anyone who projects a constant air of positivity. It’s great to look on the bright side, but to pretend everything is always hunky-dory? PLEASE. Stop lying and get REAL.
As humans, we have our ups and downs and unique ways of coping, not to mention many of us struggle with mental health disorders that make living life like a Pollyanna impossible. And to essentially blame people for struggles out of their control is not only unrealistic; it’s cruel to boot.
I grew up in a culture of “get over it.” But it was different than this positivity culture that has swept our collective conscience as of late, with its “good vibes only” and “hashtag blessed” cliches. Instead of demanding we talk of good things only, my family encouraged us to recognize what was holding us down and then to make a plan to move past it.
It was a “hard family to grow up in,” as my sister-in-law once said. There was no coddling and no pretending everything was and would be OK, to be sure. And it certainly wasn’t perfect. But as hardened as it may have made us all, it also helped me deal with later obstacles in life with a strength of mind I shudder to think may not have developed had I not been expected to accept that sometimes life’s a bitch, and sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge that and then get up and get on. It helped me navigate obstacles such as my diagnosis of degenerative disc disease at the shockingly early age of 25 (something that carries with it great pain and would only worsen with time, potentially rendering me immobile), my diagnosis of chronic anxiety, and my child’s near-death birth experiences and subsequent lifelong disabilities, to name a few.
Because of this mindset, I was accustomed to confronting that which had me down, sitting with it for a moment, and then making a plan to persevere. I allowed myself to wallow and to absorb the emotions and distress, and then I pushed myself to figure out how I was going to move forward and deal.
I’m not suggesting everyone ditch positivity in favor of being negative all the time, nor do I think that’s what the research supports. Focusing only on the negative is bound to produce similar, if not worse, results as the toxic positivity we’re inundated with now. Rather, I’m suggesting we come to terms with the fact that life is often equal parts positive and negative. That we stop being afraid of doing anything other than presenting only our best (and often fake) selves. That we normalize negativity along with positivity rather than stigmatize it.
Life is all about balance. It has its positives and its negatives. And when we start accepting this for both ourselves and those around us, perhaps we’ll be one step closer to finding the peace of mind we’re all chasing.