Why a “good vibes only” approach to life can be harmful

Have you ever put pressure on yourself to be positive when you feel the exact opposite? Or told a friend to look on the bright side of life when they’re feeling low? We all do it — talk about the power of a positive mindset, and that no matter how difficult a situation is we should maintain an optimistic view of life. While there are undeniable benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, adopting a “good vibes only” approach to life rejects difficult emotions in favour of a cheerful and overall more positive facade. 

Unfortunately life isn’t always positive. We all deal with painful emotions, so it’s important to express those feelings — not hide them. The problem with a “good vibes only” approach, or toxic positivity, is it turns positive thinking into an extreme overgeneralisation and stops us from accepting our true feelings. 

What are the signs? 

While toxic positivity is often shared with the best intentions, it lacks compassion and can shut down opportunities for real connection. Toxic positivity can arise both in your own self-talk and  in how you communicate with others.

Here are some signs that positivity has turned toxic:

  • You dismiss or brush off feelings that aren’t “positive”
  • You feel guilt or shame for experiencing “negative” emotions
  • You’re avoiding or hiding from uncomfortable feelings
  • You only focus on the positive aspects of a painful situation

Is it harmful? 

Telling someone who is going through difficult times to focus on the positive can be damaging and encourage feelings of rejection or insignificance. If someone is feeling down, it’s good to comfort them and offer a listening ear, but putting an emphasis on being positive becomes toxic when it makes people think their feelings are ‘wrong’ and unnecessary, and causes them to hold back from expressing how they truly feel. 

Toxic positivity can: 

  • Teach people to squash valid emotions and ‘just smile’ through a crisis
  • Deny people an outlet to share their very real struggles
  • Prolong painful emotions; the more we try to push away pain and discomfort, the more it persists

“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that is it not” Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook

Why we should embrace our negative emotions

According to a study, the psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts is that although accepting dark emotions like anxiety or rage will not make you “happy”, it also won’t amplify your negative emotions. What’s more, acceptance seems to be linked to better mental health in response to negative emotions rather than positive ones. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean being resigned to a stressful negative experience, but rather the opportunity to see the emotion for what it is without judging it or attempting to get rid of it, and making space for your emotions helps them pass more quickly and more gently. It’s important to look for hope and gratitude but we also need to give ourselves permission to feel whatever we’re feeling. Remember that it won’t always be this hard and you’ll get through to the other side but we don’t need to make it harder by denying our own emotions. Let yourself feel it: the sadness, the grief, the anger, the fear and the loss.

When you embrace your negative emotions: 

  • You can act with more constructive and logical thoughts
  • Realise that what you’re truly experiencing can make you stronger
  • You’re not avoiding emotions, which is necessary to accept them

How to avoid toxic positivity: 

Embrace all emotions and be authentic

All feelings are valid and contribute to our human experience. Even ‘negative’ feelings like anger, anxiety and fear are primitive responses that our brain releases to keep us safe from potential danger. Honour your emotions and allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel. 

Social media does not project a true reality

If you’re going through a tough period, avoid getting engrossed in social media and remember that more often than not, it projects a false reality of eternal happiness and perfection. Toxic positivity has partly flourished because of these online platforms, which often only show us at our best and in the moments we want to share. 

Don’t compare yourself to others

We’ve all had varying life experiences that have shaped us and we all deal with things differently. If other people respond to something in a different way than you do, it doesn’t mean your response and the feelings tied in with it are ‘wrong’. 

When you’re talking to someone, listen

Take the time to understand what is wrong, rather than invalidating their feelings with toxic positivity. Try these alternatives:

Instead of: “Good vibes only,” try, “I love you no matter how you’re feeling.”

Instead of: “You’ll get over it,” try, “You are resilient and your strengths will get you through it.”

Instead of: “Other people have it a lot worse,” try, “You’re not alone — there’s support for you.”

Instead of: “Smile, crying won’t help,” try, “It’s okay to cry, we all do.”

Instead of: “Just stay positive,” try, “Things are tough right now. Do you want to talk about it?”

In sum

Toxic positivity is often subtle, and we’ve likely all engaged in this type of thinking at one point or another, probably without even realising. But by learning to recognise it, you’ll be better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking, and give and receive more authentic support when you’re going through a rough patch. It’s about being more mindful of toxic statements and learning to let yourself and others feel emotions — both the positive and the negative.

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