NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Understanding Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful to Yourself and Your Loved Ones

I began a discussion in my last article, What is Toxic Positivity? by defining toxic positivity and giving examples of it. 

As a recap from my last article: Toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions (anger, sadness, shame, resentment, jealousy, envy and so on) with an attitude of "good vibes only."  

In other words, instead of dealing with actual emotions, toxic positivity only allows positive emotions at the expense of true emotions.

The Harmful Effects of Toxic Positivity

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?
Toxic positivity is harmful because it invalidates a person's real experiences.  Instead of being able to share what's really going on emotionally and getting emotional support, a person who is confronted with toxic positivity has their feelings dismissed, ignored or invalidated.

In addition, toxic positivity is:  
  • Shaming: When someone discloses difficult emotions and they are met with toxic positivity, they usually experience their emotions as shameful. The message they get is that their feelings are unacceptable.  Instead of feeling cared for and emotionally validated, they are met with judgment which is presented to them as if it's helpful, but it's not.  
  • Guilt-inducing: Aside from feeling ashamed, someone who reveals challenging emotions and is met with toxic positivity can feel guilty for feeling the way they do.
The Harmful Effects of Toxic Positivity

  • Emotionally Avoidant: Toxic positivity is used to avoid uncomfortable feelings.  This often occurs because people have their own problems with challenging emotions and they can only tolerate "good vibes."
  • An Impediment to Psychological Growth and Insight: Instead of dealing with challenging emotions, a person who uses toxic positivity doesn't grow psychologically. They also don't develop insight into their problems because they are avoiding them.

Clinical Vignette:
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases, reveals the harmful effects of toxic positivity and how therapy can help:

When Nina confided in her older sister, Jane, that she was sad about her breakup with Joe, she was seeking emotional support from Jane.  But Jane brushed off Nina's sadness by telling her, "I don't understand why you're sad. You're so much better off without him. You both want different things.  Just move on and get back out there to meet someone new."

Nina knew that ending her five year relationship with Joe was for the best.  She and Joe each had a very different vision of what they wanted in life, which was something Nina had ignored throughout their five years together.  

But when he told her that he knew he didn't want to have children and his long term plan was to move back to his small hometown in the Midwest, Nina knew for sure it wasn't going to work out between them, and she ended it.

Even though she knew she made the right decision, she also knew this was a significant loss for her.  At 28, she had only ever been in one serious relationship, which was her relationship with Joe.  And even though she knew that, unlike Joe, she wanted children and she wanted to stay in New York City, she still missed him.

After she spoke with her sister, Nina wondered if she was wrong to feel sad about her recent breakup.  She felt ashamed and guilty for feeling sad.  But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't to brush aside her feelings.

Whens she spoke to her best friend, Carol, Carol told Nina that her emotions didn't seem unusual, "Of course, you feel sad. Joe was a big part of your life."  Then, she suggested that Nina seek help in therapy to deal with her feelings.

Her therapist validated Nina's feelings and told her that she was having a common response to a breakup.  Then she provided Nina with psychoeducation about toxic positivity.

The Harmful Effects of Toxic Positivity

As Nina thought about it, she realized that everyone in her family--her mother, father, and older sister often responded in this invalidating way when she felt sad, angry or frustrated.

Each family member had their own way of being emotionally invalidating.  Her mother usually interrupted Nina whenever Nina was trying to get emotional support from her by saying in a cheerful tone, "It will all look better in the morning."  This left Nina feeling alone and unsupported.

Her father usually responded to Nina by telling her, "Instead of focusing on what you don't have, focus on being grateful for what you do have," which made Nina feel guilty and ashamed for being concerned about her problems.

Over time, Nina worked in therapy to grieve the loss of her relationship. She felt emotionally supported and validated by her therapist.

She also learned to accept her emotions instead of second guessing herself.  She realized her family responded to her the way they did because they had their own problems with challenging emotions.  She came to understand that when she brought up her difficult emotions, they felt defensive and relied on toxic positivity to avoid their own unpleasant feelings.

Eventually, after Nina grieved the end of her relationship, she was able to begin dating again.  

She also grieved in therapy for the emotional validation she didn't receive growing up.  This was part of her trauma therapy.

In time, she no longer felt ashamed or guilty for feeling sad and she learned to accept all of her emotions--not just the pleasant ones.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity
  • Accept All of Your Emotions: Accepting your emotions doesn't mean you like the discomfort you are experiencing.  It just means that, instead of denying your feelings, you acknowledge them without judgment or self criticism.  
  • Cultivate Self Compassion: In the same way you would be compassionate towards a loved one who was suffering, develop compassion for yourself
  • Know That It's Okay to Have Difficult Emotions: Know that you're having a common experience when you feel sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated or experience other challenging emotions. Having these emotions doesn't make you less than anyone else. It just makes you human.
  • Be Assertive in Challenging People Who Are Toxically Positive With You: If someone is invalidating your emotions, you can set a boundary with them in a tactful way. You don't have to listen to advice that includes toxic positivity.  By being assertive, you will be asserting your right to have your own emotional experiences without judgment, shame or guilt.

Toxic positivity is a mindset which states that people should remain positive regardless of what is going on for them.  It invalidates people's genuine emotions with superficial platitudes and pressures them to do things like "always look on the bright side" when that's not what they're feeling.

People who engage in toxic positivity might have good intentions, but their platitudes leave loved ones who are struggling emotionally feeling alone, emotionally invalidated, dismissed, ignored, shamed or guilty.

People who use toxic positivity are often unable to tolerate their own uncomfortable emotions, and they impose their discomfort on others under the guise of "being positive."  

You can learn to be self compassionate by accepting your emotions and practicing self validation (see my article: What is Self Validation?).

When to Get Help in Therapy
Growing up with toxic positivity is traumatic.  You internalize these toxic messages at a deep level.  Often this results in self doubt about your emotional experiences, which leaves you feeling guilty, ashamed and unworthy.

If you have been traumatized by toxic positivity since childhood, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

In trauma therapy, you can learn to let go of the emotionally invalidating messages internalized so that you can accept your emotions, validate yourself and learn to be self compassionate.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples. 

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.