Positivity is a double-edged sword: Positive Psychology vs Toxic Positivity

Navigating the Landscape of Positivity

When we try to feel and be better, we may cross paths with the techniques used in positive psychology. But, if we are worse off, we’ll encounter someone (or something, such as a movie, a book, or possibly even our thoughts) who suggests a radical, inauthentic approach to happiness. Toxic Positivity. It is the exploitative version of something with the best possible intention. And it’s crucial to be able to distinguish these two. Both have to do with being optimistic, but they differ significantly.

While positive psychology is a new discipline within the field of psychology that builds on striving, resilience and a healthy sparkle of optimism, toxic positivity is the denial of anything unpleasant and, at times, the sheer negation of anything “unwanted”. It’s sad to see how these two are sometimes intertwined and confused. In this article, I aim to highlight why one lets us strive, and the other makes us prone to exploitation, frustration, and sadness.

Let’s tackle this once and for all so we can start thinking healthily. I will glimpse the groups that make toxic positivity worse and provide some tools used in positive psychology to help you flourish.

The Nourishing Essence of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the scientific field that focuses on the aspects of human life that contribute to well-being, resilience and happiness.

Positive psychology differs from traditional psychology because it focuses on making people happier, more grateful, resilient, and compassionate instead of fixing their problems and weaknesses. While traditional psychology focuses on the latter (reducing symptoms of feeling unwell), positive psychology builds a stronger person in adversity.

Techniques such as gratitude journaling, mindfulness, and strength identification are not just catchphrases; they are well-researched methods to improve mental health, build resilience, and encourage personal growth.

Positive psychology acknowledges the importance of experiencing a full range of emotions. It promotes an authentic way of living.

It doesn’t ignore the negatives but equips us with the tools to confront challenges, bounce back from adversities, and build meaningful relationships.

One of my first Vlogs on Positive Psychology

The Toxic Undertone: Understanding Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity, however, means acting overly happy or optimistic in situations where it doesn’t make sense and might even be bad for you. Ever heard “It could be worse”? Yeah, I thought so. What’s so bad about these four words is that they negate whatever we are experiencing, trying to shame us for our subjective experience of a particular situation.

Unlike positive psychology, which fosters resilience through the authentic experience of a wide range of emotions, toxic positivity is a gag order on anything that isn’t overly cheerful.

It invalidates genuine feelings of pain, sadness, or anxiety, leading to emotional suppression. Such an approach can intensify stress, cause anxiety, and even lead to depression. It can also strain relationships by making interactions seem superficial or inauthentic. If you had a friend who always smiled and never wanted to share their genuine feelings, you know what it feels like. Toxic positivity deprives us of the chance for deep connection and sharing our subjective experiences. Instead, we coat sadness with sugar, hoping it will turn into candy floss. But it won’t.

Certain industries exacerbate this misunderstanding of what genuine positivity is. The self-help industry, with its often oversimplified “quick fixes” for complex emotional states, is a prime example. Similarly, the carefully curated realities presented on social media platforms can make us feel pressured to maintain a facade of eternal happiness, further entrenching a toxic view of what it means to be positive.

Real-world Examples: The Good, The Bad, and The Balanced

Consider how some companies push for a “positive-only” environment to show the difference. This stops helpful feedback and real feelings from being expressed, hurting people’s health and how much they can get done.

But then, think about how some groups for support or mental health want people to talk about their struggles. They know it’s essential to be positive, but they also want to ensure everyone’s feelings are heard and understood.

Only through tackling problems (not denying them) can we get the chance for real growth.

Another stark example comes from social media influencers who profess “happiness is a choice,” thus creating a narrow and toxic understanding of positivity. Conversely, educational settings where emotional intelligence is integrated into the curriculum offer a more balanced view. These programs help children understand that experiencing a full range of emotions isn’t a sign of weakness but a facet of being human.

They also teach that “sh*t happens”. And that it’s okay. As long as we get back up. They teach cognitive reframing, how to stop catastrophising, healthy optimism (positive but still realistic) and the importance of checking in with ourselves in an authentic, loving, caring way.

Navigating Positivity

As you journey towards a more balanced emotional life, being mindful is important.

Practising emotional awareness can help you distinguish between healthy optimism and toxic positivity. Strive for authenticity in your emotional expressions. Sometimes, it’s perfectly okay not to be okay, and acknowledging this can be the first step towards genuine improvement.

Keeping ourselves in check is essential to strive for success, meaning, accomplishment, positive emotions and relationships. It’s important to understand when something does work – and if something doesn’t.

Most importantly, We need to understand our inherent worth does not diminish when we feel low, off, sad, angry or otherwise unpleasant. We are worthy in every emotion deemed.

If I could only give one advice to all of humanity, it would probably be this:

Remain critical of one-sided advice that glosses over the complexities of human emotions and experiences.

Conclusion

The positive psychology toolkit provides numerous strategies for enhancing well-being. But it’s essential to approach these resources critically to avoid the pitfalls of toxic positivity.

Healthy optimism is about facing challenges with a constructive attitude and the emotional intelligence to recognise when being overly optimistic serves no one.

By adopting a balanced approach, we can honour the full range of our human experience while pursuing a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

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