By Cailey Garner, MusicWorx Intern
Toxic Positivity… It may sound like a paradox upon first glance. How could maintaining a positive outlook on our lives or the lives of others become harmful? When life throws us difficulty and pain, isn’t positivity something we should always strive for?
Let’s take a look at what it means to exhibit positivity in our daily mindset.
Merriam Webster defines positivity as “the quality or state of being positive;” and positive as “marked by optimism”. Being marked by optimism means that a person looks “on the more favorable side of events,” “expect[s] the most favorable outcome,” and believes “that good predominates over evil in the world”.
How can positivity benefit our daily lives? Seeing the world through a positive lens is generally healthy and beneficial (Morin, 2020; Prothero, 2021). A positive outlook can empower us to:
- Overcome difficulty by envisioning the outcome of a difficult situation with optimism, providing us with hope for the future.
- Have longer lasting friendships (Geers, et al., 1998).
- Build healthier relationships (Geers, et al., 1998).
What is toxic positivity?
Well-intentioned positivity becomes toxic when we gloss over anxiety, stress, or despair (Prothero, 2021). Toxic positivity seeks to “fix” rather than extend empathy, compassion and acknowledgement towards ourselves or others. We usually have good intentions when we seek a positive outlook on our lives or the lives of others. However, when we skip past our difficult emotions to find the silver lining, thinking we can solve a problem or make it go away, our feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, fear, or stress are left unresolved and ignored.
Consider this example:
In their video Therapist Reacts to INSIDE OUT, Jonathan Decker and Allan Seawright (2020), of Cinema Therapy address the theme of toxic positivity in Disney/Pixar’s film Inside Out. Decker and Seawright discuss the toxic positivity we see from Joy. In the beginning of the film, we see that Joy usually shuts down all other emotions, thinking that she is “the ultimate goal and everything else is subservient to her” (Decker & Seawright, 2020, 6:07). She views other emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, and sadness as inferior and of less value compared to the happiness and positivity that she offers.
Later in the film, Joy finally relinquishes command to another character, Sadness (Docter & Carmen, 2015). When she does so, we learn the beauty and necessity of sadness. Instead of feeling the need to be happy all the time, Joy realizes that embracing sadness is a vital part of our human experience. Sadness “builds relationships in a way that nothing else can” and is an invaluable “means of being close and developing compassion and empathy” (23:36). When we allow ourselves to experience grief, anger, fear, and sadness, there becomes a deeper quality to our joy. “If you’ve never felt sad, you can’t appreciate what Joy is” (7:55). From the acceptance of our pain and sadness comes a greater appreciation for the love and joy in our lives.
Let’s consider the implications.
If you ever find yourself turning a blind eye to difficult emotions and viewing positivity or happiness as the ultimate goal, consider giving voice and acceptance to your feelings of fear, sadness, worry, stress, anger, and grief. “A constant state of happiness […] shouldn’t be an emotional goal” (Prothero, 2021). In fact, by ignoring our own struggles and warning signs, we might miss an opportunity to respond to underlying mental health struggles within ourselves or loved ones (Schneider, 2020). How can we then, in our daily lives, practice greater empathy? Are there others who look up to us? How can we model a lifestyle of embracing our full range of emotions without striving to immediately fix or resolve them?
Action steps for healthy positivity and embracing our full emotional experience:
1. Practice vulnerability and honesty in relationships.
Little is gained by maintaining a facade of happiness. In fact, doing so only leads us to isolation from others and avoidance of our own needs. Ignoring difficult emotions doesn’t make them go away. By expressing our true feelings with others, we can find true connection and better understand the experiences of our loved ones without judgment.
2. Don’t pressure others to be optimistic.
If people feel obligated to muster up a positive perspective or a cheerful attitude, but are unable to do so, they may begin to feel guilty (Prothero, 2021). Instead, come alongside others to support and encourage them with a willingness to listen, without any pressure of optimism.
3. Practice deep breathing and mindfulness.
Deep breathing is a powerful tool to help regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory efficiency, breathing rate, and our autonomic responses to physical and mental stress (Russo et al., 2017). If you notice unwanted emotions arising within you, try taking slow, deep breaths with one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. As you do so, slowly acknowledge your surroundings, the way your body feels, and other sensations of touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. Notice how this mindfulness and deep breathing allowed you to connect with yourself and respond to those emotions. For more mindful breathing tools, visit Music & Creative Arts for Self-Care.
5. Advocate for yourself.
If someone frequently responds to your experience using phrases such as “it could be worse” or “at least __”, communicate to them that the way they are responding is invalidating (Prothero, 2021). Take the opportunity to model your acceptance of these emotions and the empathy with which you treat yourself. Click here for effective strategies for coping with mass trauma.
As humans in 2022, amidst the profound effects of a world-wide pandemic, social turmoil, political polarization, economic uncertainty, the existential threat of climate change, and other threats to our safety, relationships, mental health, and “happiness”, we should expect to feel a mix of many different emotions. When these difficult emotions arise, consider the ways that you can practice empathy and compassion towards yourself and others. Recognize the people in your life to whom you can say: “You’re suffering and I’m not going to leave you… I’m here with you and I love you and you’re not alone” (Decker & Seawright, 2020, 23:02). Positivity is a wonderful thing when it is balanced with empathy, compassion and acceptance.
Frostrom, T. M., (2022) Music & creative arts for self-care. Musicworx Inc. Retrieved from: https://musicworxinc.com/2022/03/29/music-creative-arts-for-self-care/.
Geers, A. L., Reilley, S. P., & Dember, W. N. (1998). Optimism, pessimism, and friendship. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 17, 3-19.
Decker, J & Seawright, A. [Cinema Therapy]. (2020, June 3). Therapist Reacts to INSIDE OUT [Video]. Youtube.
Disney Pixar Trailer GIF by Disney [Digital Image]. (2015). Retrieved from https://giphy.com/gifs/disney-feelings-disney-pixar-inside-out-gD7PbhbmVsw1i.
Docter, P., Carmen, R. (2015). Inside Out [Film]. Pixar Animation Studios & Walt Disney Pictures.
Locascio, B. (03 May 2020). Coping with mass trauma: Effective strategies for handling physical distancing. Musicworx Inc. Retrieved from: https://musicworxinc.com/2020/05/03/coping-with-mass-trauma/.
Morin, A. (2020). How ‘toxic positivity’ at work may be damaging your mental health – and what you can do about it, according to a psychotherapist. The Business Insider.
Prothero, A. (2021). When toxic positivity seeps into schools, here’s what educators can do. Education Week, 40 (17), 10. Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.
Russo, M, Santarelli, D., O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. National Library of Medicine: Breathe, 13(4), 298-309.
Schneider, K. (2020). “Toxic Positivity”. UWIRE Text. Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.