Is the glass half empty or half full? This is an age-old question meant to label its respondents as pessimists or optimists, respectively. And in the age of an unprecedented pandemic, optimism may look like the better option. According to the Scientific American, COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death for Americans, killing more people than the flu, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. Outside of the obvious health concerns, Americans are also facing unemployment and social isolation unlike ever before. While facing an extreme public health crisis and the negative economic, psychological and social consequences that come along with it, positivity seems like a viable option. We remind ourselves constantly, “it could be worse.” But optimism in excess does much more harm than good.
According to The Psychology Group of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the concept of “toxic positivity” is “…the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
This idea of toxic positivity can manifest itself in many common expressions and emotional practices. These can include hiding or masking one’s true feelings, feeling guilty for what one feels, using seemingly “happy” advice or quotes to minimize others’ experiences or shaming others for expressing frustration. Whether you tell yourself to, “just get on with it,” or “it is what it is,” or someone else quotes these phrases at you, the true feelings of the situation are dismissed in a matter of seconds.
Pushing away negative emotions just for the sake of optimism causes internalization of feelings of shame, distress, inadequacy and weakness. Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, Maryland explains the negative effects by saying, “Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy –which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions– leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive.” Secondary emotions are just as negative-feeling as the ones we push away with toxic positivity, so nothing is gained. Saving face by claiming “everything is fine” delays uncomfortable emotions, but only by pushing them under the surface. Eventually these emotions will build up stronger than before.
So how does one combat toxic positivity? The most important thing is to find balance. Solely being an optimist avoids difficult emotions, while focusing on pessimism allows no room for the positive side of the human emotional experience. According to Psychology Today, “Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ all positive or all negative…Emotions help us make sense of things.”
We remind ourselves constantly, “it could be worse.”
Emotions are a guidance that clue our mind in on what’s happening, while also conveying information to the people around us. For example, you may feel sad about leaving a job. This indicates that the experience was meaningful. Explaining to a loved one that you feel sad about leaving despite being happy for what the job gave you asks for comfort from them. In this situation, choosing to focus on only one aspect of the many emotions in play only tells half the story. Toxic positivity would ask you to move on without looking back, but being human allows nostalgia.
While there’s no singular fix to all of life’s emotional difficulties, listening and acknowledging the full spectrum of feelings felt is vastly important. When interacting with others, rather than telling them everything is fine, listen intently to what they are actually saying. Openness and emotional vulnerability allows awareness of your present experience without a judgement on your feelings regarding the situation. Remember: it’s O.K. to not be O.K.