By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Toxic positivity is a new phrase in the therapy world. I hear it all too often in my office “I’m trying to be positive all the time, but it just doesn’t work.” Have you heard of toxic positivity? Today’s post is going over toxic positivity and how to avoid it without discounting the good things that are actually happening.
First things first, what is toxic positivity? I bet “it doesn’t mean what you think it means.” (Thank you Inigo Montoya for this quote!!). Toxic positivity is a term that has really gained in popularity over the last five years. Toxic positivity is defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations” (Quintero and Long, 2021). That is a mouthful. To shorten it up: toxic positivity is a form of the cognitive distortion, overgeneralizing.
According to this definition, toxic positivity is different than someone who is optimistic. People who utilize toxic positivity use the cognitive distortion, overgeneralizing, to dismiss any emotion that comes as negative. When we dismiss our emotions, we are ignoring crucial information about what we are experience. Therefore, we are invalidating ourselves when we cover up our experience.
“there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions. They are all emotions with information about what we are experiencing.”– Carissa Weber
How does the practice of toxic positivity impact the brain? Well, that is a question I am prepared to answer! If you recall from my posts, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected and Realistic Affirmations: The Hardest Emotional Regulation Tool, we talked about how positive thoughts impact the brain. When we feel happiness, joy, or experience a compliment, our prefrontal cortex signals the brain to release the feel good neurotransmitters, which tells the adrenal gland to stop producing the stress hormone, cortisol. With cortisol low, we can experience those emotions everyone labels as positive.
Now, when toxic positivity comes in to play, the brain does something a bit different. When we deny those tough emotions, our brain knows. That darn amygdala starts to send of the red flag and say “this emotions is wrong to feel!” So, on top of the adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol released by these already strong emotions, That darn amygdala just told the thalamus to increase the intensity of those feelings.
By this time, the prefrontal cortex is shaking its head, commenting “we don’t have to do this!,” but the rest of the limbic system is already on board with that darn amygdala. As that darn amygdala is running the show, and the neurotransmitters and stress hormones are dictating how we feel, we may notice a couple different things:
- Feeling overwhelmed and anxious, but not knowing why
- Avoiding our natural support system
- An overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, but you can’t put your finger on as to why you feel like this
As we talked about in my post all about validation, we know that when we avoid our feelings and deny what is happening, we are invalidating ourselves! What does that lead to? You guessed it: negative core beliefs, increased anxiety symptoms, increased depressive symptoms, and poor self-esteem.
What does toxic positivity look like? It looks a lot like:
- Hiding your true feelings
- Dismissing feelings so you can “just get through this”
- Feeling guilty for how you are feeling
- Minimizing the experience you are having
- Constantly comparing your situation to other people’s situation
- People-pleasing behaviors as to show people “everything is awesome!” (thank you Lego Movie!)
Our own toxic positivity may even rub off on others. Did you know that? How many of us have experienced someone saying “you know, it could be worse.”? Maybe you have even told someone to “just stay positive!” One I’ve heard over and over again in my office is “it is what it is.” These phrases are all signs that you are not comfortable with other people’s strong emotions.
Feeling a bit called out by the above paragraph? Good! That means that you are in a place to explore ways to change!
Coping skills alert!
How do you tell the difference between accepting positive things that are happening and toxic positivity? What a great question! Many of you might be wondering how you can help your prefrontal cortex help that darn amygdala get the point that emotions are okay to experience. Let’s start first by understanding emotion identification.
Believe it or not, many people struggle to identify emotions. Sure, they can pinpoint happy, excited, angry, and all those simple ones. We can identify them as they are part of the six basic emotions that everyone feels: happy, sad, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust. It is from these six emotions that we can break them down into almost 3000 identifiable emotions (Holy Cow Batman!)
So, how do we know what we are feeling if there are that many? Two ways: first by identifying the physical sensation we are experiencing and, second, by tying that back to what we know certain feelings physically feel like. Example, if I were to break wind in public (just an example here folks!), I know my face would get red, my body would feel restless, I would avert eye contact with the person across the isle from me, and I would find my posture is trying to make me small. These physical sensations are the Hallmark of embarrassment. Embarrassment essentially is the combination of fear, sadness, surprise, and a tad of anger.
Let’s try another example, shall we? Let’s say you get home and the house is clean. On top of that, you find flowers in a vase, a cake in the oven, and your significant other dressed nicely. Your eyes dart to the calendar. Shit! You totally forgot that it is your anniversary (true story). Physically, you feel the same physical sensations as embarrassment, but you also are now experiencing a tight chest, a lump in your throat, and a sudden rush of energy that makes you want to hide. Is it possible that the feeling you are experiencing is shame? Yeah, it isn’t a proud moment when you forget your anniversary.
If you are good at identifying the physical feeling, but don’t actually know the name for the feeling, relying on a feelings wheel might be helpful. What is a feelings wheel? It is a pretty neat tool that lays out some of the more common emotions (not all 3000) to help you label what you are feeling.
Now that we have gone over labeling our emotions, we need to talk about experiencing our emotions. In my last post, Internal and External Validation, we discussed the importance of experiencing our emotions. It is tough, but it is something that helps us process the information our emotions have for us to provide a reaction to the situation we are facing. When we experience our emotions, we must be realistic about what we are feeling. Great example: is it realistic to be happy when our favorite kid puts a baseball through a closed window? No. Is it realistic to feel angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed by it? Yes.
P.S. – you can experience more than one emotion at a time. What?! It is true. There are tons of situations that call for multiple emotions. One that pops into my head immediately is an unexpected trip to the emergency room. It is normal to be nervous about what is going to happen, but also relieved that you will soon have an answer about what is wrong with you. You can also have joy when you find out that your ankle is just sprained, and not broke, but also fear about the medical bill that will be in your mailbox in a few weeks. Remember, as humans, we are complex emotional beings.
Now that we can experience the emotions, we must be able to identify a helpful reaction to those emotions. That is where we can refer back to several different posts (like those for distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and mindfulness) to channel the information the emotions are giving us to come up with a reaction that will be the most beneficial to us. Wait, we can react in a non-impulsive way? Yes you can! With practice (there I go again!), you can help your prefrontal cortex tell that darn amygdala to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine!
Who would have thought that toxic positivity could take up so much time? I’m so happy that you could take time to learn more about how to challenge toxic positivity in your life and start feeling your emotions. It isn’t comfortable at first, but with practice, it will decrease the intensity of those hard emotional experiences.
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- Cherry, K (2021). What Is Toxic Positivity? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-toxic-positivity-5093958#:~:text=Toxic%20positivity%20takes%20positive%20thinking,t%20strictly%20happy%20or%20positive.
- Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007;18(5):421-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
- Quintero and Long (2021)Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes. Retrieved from https://thepsychologygroup.com/toxic-positivity/
- Villinas, Z (2021). What to know about toxic positivity. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/toxic-positivity