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Is It Toxic Positivity or a Positive Mindset?

Andromeda Peters, LICSW 

Mental health is becoming more widely accepted on a global level. Cultures that have once deemed therapy as taboo are becoming more open to professional help. With that, therapy has become a space where one can simultaneously receive validation of their emotional experiences and a framework for shifting one’s thoughts to a healthier mindset. However, how do we know if we are leaning towards toxic positivity or just shifting to a healthier way of thinking? Let’s explore this together.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is defined as a state where one should always have positive thoughts and a positive mindset, even when one is having a difficult emotional experience. This means that we actually suppress the healthy range of emotional experiences that we feel, even if they’re difficult emotions. Stifling our emotions, rather than allowing ourselves to move in and out of different emotional states can leave us in a place of emotional imbalance, which is not healthy for the mind and body. Here are two examples of identified types of toxic positivity:

  1. Someone receives bad news and opens up about their challenges. The listener responds with the reminder to “think positive thoughts.” This closes the door for the experiencer to open up any further about their emotions and also denies them the experience of validation.
  2. Someone opens up to us about circumstances where they are experiencing abuse. The listener responds with the reminder that one should be thankful for being financially provided for. This situation can be dangerous because it normalizes abuse and trauma and ceases one’s cry for help, where receiving help could actually lead them to safety. 

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Empathy is an important key element in holding space for someone. Although a client may be challenged in the therapeutic space if they are experiencing distorted thinking, it is important to note that the examples listed above, and others like them, exemplify one’s need for emotional support and help to safety. Furthermore, if one does experience distorted thinking and is encouraged to make changes, this is a process that happens in healthy steps:

  1. Active listening
  2. Validating one’s experiences and providing empathy
  3. Encouraging one to feel their emotions, explore them, sit with them, and express them
  4. Finding stability in one’s body and mind
  5. Exploring thought patterns and reframing when needed

Many times, when we must deal with unwanted experiences, emotions arise such as sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, and more. When we look at our experiences from these lenses, our thoughts often align with our emotions. This may lay the foundation for how we view our circumstances and for how we view ourselves in the situation. If we process our emotions healthily and allow ourselves to experience each emotional state as they arise, then our thoughts may naturally sound more “positive.”  This differs from suppressing emotions and suppressing thoughts. 

What the Research Is Saying

In a study by Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, and Hofmann (2006), they observed physiological effects between two groups of people with anxiety and mood disorders; one group was asked to suppress their emotions while watching an emotionally triggering film and the other was asked to accept all of their emotions that came to surface.

These researchers found that the participants who were asked to suppress their emotions presented with an increased heart rate and emotional distress following the film. Researchers concluded that higher levels of negative affect, poorer social adjustment, and decreased wellbeing correlate to repeated suppression of emotions.

It is important to remember that just because we express “negative” emotions, does not mean that we are not positive or that we do not possess positive thinking. Expressing all emotions, no matter the category, is a part of our body’s natural functioning. As we release emotions and the energy behind them, our minds and bodies can more easily make their way back to homeostasis. We can find that our thoughts may coincide with this internal balance. 

If you are navigating unwanted experiences and are dealing with toxic positivity, talking to a therapist can help. Reach out to Symmetry Counseling today to get paired with one of our counselors in Washington D.C., Arizona, Illinois, and Texas. We are here to help! 

Reference:

Toxic Positivity in Psychology: How to Avoid the Positivity Trap. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/toxic-positivity-in-psychology/ on February 15, 2022.

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