It’s OK Not to Be OK: Ditching Toxic Positivity for Mental Wellness

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Author Name: Lucas Cook
Date: Wednesday April 17, 2024

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You’re likely well familiar with toxic positivity and didn’t realize it. While anyone would much rather feel happy than sad, denying any negative emotions when they arise isn’t a good approach to boosting your mental health. Here’s everything you need to know about toxic positivity and how to overcome it in your daily life. 

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Have you ever been fresh out of a heartwrenching breakup only for someone to remind you there are other fish in the sea? Toxic positivity negates the existence of negative emotions in a happier, dismissive and minimizing manner. 

It often ignores wide-ranging emotions people experience, leading them to bottle up feelings of frustration, sadness, fear and upset. After some time, their emotions could get the best of them and lead to poor mental health, discouragement, low self-esteem and a lack of communication. 

In one study, participants who repeatedly wrote “I am a lovable person” every 15 seconds for four minutes felt worse about themselves afterward. 

Experiencing negative emotions is valid. Humans aren’t meant to live in the light all the time. In fact, challenges and overwhelm are healthy stepping stones to growth and resilience. Achieving real positivity requires working through your feelings first, whatever they may be.

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Places You’ve Likely Experienced Toxic Positivity 

“Just relax, and it’ll happen.” “You can always adopt.” “A friend of a friend did IVF and got pregnant immediately.” Up to 64% of women with infertility experience stigma for their inability to have a child. Although most people have the best intentions, insensitive comments laced with toxic positivity can negatively affect their mental health.

You may not realize it, but you likely encounter toxic positivity daily, such as in these familiar places:

  • Loved ones: Phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “chin up” are rarely helpful in bad situations.
  • Workplace: A “good vibes only” work environment may temper some co-worker disagreements but prevent people from speaking up and seeking support and resources.
  • Social media: People typically highlight only the happiest, most idealized moments when enduring negativity and hardships. 
  • Self-help culture: Motivational speakers, books, videos and other resources offer insight to someone struggling, but it is essential to look for media acknowledging the full spectrum of emotions. 

Of course, you might also inflict toxic positivity on yourself. For example, you might save face or sweep things under the rug with a smile.

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Feel Your Feelings: Why You Should Embrace All Emotions

While nobody wants to feel at their lowest low, embracing all your emotions is best for the following reasons:

  • Ignoring emotions doesn’t make them disappear and may cause you even more problems later.
  • Working through hardships and processing negative emotions is best for building resilience.
  • When you embrace your emotions, others feel safe to do the same.
  • Negative feelings may prompt authentic positivity, such as fighting for justice or cautioning you against danger.
  • A combination of negative and positive emotions creates greater balance in your life. 

It’s perfectly OK to feel happy, sad, afraid or angry — sometimes simultaneously. It’s also valid for you to react to difficult situations differently. Learning to digest, live with, and work through emotions and negativity makes you stronger amid new challenges and better able to communicate and foster community.

6 Ways to Ditch Toxic Positivity for Better Mental Health

Fighting toxic positivity — especially self-inflicted — is one of life’s biggest challenges. Yet, it’s necessary to improve your mental well-being. Here are six ways to ditch toxic positivity, embrace your emotions for what they are and live with genuine joy. 

1. Acknowledge and Validate Feelings

Pretending one’s feelings are nonexistent or not real is typical of toxic positivity. Therefore, the first step to combatting it is to recognize and validate your various emotions in the first place. Denying your feelings are there could lead to worsening distress. In reality, negative emotions and experiences are a normal part of life — they become easier to manage when you remind yourself they’re meant to be there.

2. Practice Realistic Self-Talk

If you are among the 20% of the population who classify as highly sensitive, you especially need to honor your emotions. Instead of practicing positive or negative self-talk, focus on realistic statements. For example, when you realize you’re in the midst of negativity, self-criticism and upset — or think you should be happier like others — remind yourself that it is expected to feel the way you do. 

3. Remember Progress Over Perfection

There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect, especially in the age of social media. However, maintaining unrealistic expectations for happiness can hinder your mental health. Concentrating on progress makes you more likely to celebrate minor achievements and milestones. This helps cultivate self-compassion and encourages you to keep moving forward. 

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4. Create a Self-Care Regimen

Approximately 75% of American adults think self-care leads to less stress — a critical reason to adopt a regimen when combatting toxic positivity. For one thing, suppressing your emotions could drain or deplete your energy. Instead, self-care allows you to process your feelings healthily. Self-care also creates better balance in your life, helps you formulate boundaries and cultivates the ideal space to feel your emotions and focus on your needs. 

5. Look for Messages in Emotions

Emotions don’t simply appear from thin air — you must feel a certain way for them to surface. If you’re overwhelmed with emotions, consider their purpose. They may hold meaningful messages for you to give situations the proper attention. 

6. Seek Support

Not everyone wants to see a mental health specialist to discuss their problems, but one may provide practical tools for working through toxic positivity. A therapist can teach you how to respond to people who don’t honor your feelings as you need them to. They can also teach you coping strategies to make big feelings less scary and overwhelming to move through.

Toxic Positivity Creates Negativity and Stress

On the surface, pushing away negative feelings to feel happier makes sense but doesn’t work. You have to move through difficult situations to make it out on top. Embrace whatever emotions come up to achieve genuine positivity. 

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