5 Reasons Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful

How do you react when you’re feeling painful emotions such as anger, sadness, disappointment, frustration, or loss? Do you try to stop yourself from feeling them? Do you believe people need to always be positive, no matter the situation? It’s important to be careful not to fall into the trap of toxic positivity.

There are two types of emotions: positive and negative. Positive emotions are those that are pleasurable to experience, such as joy, excitement, pleasant surprise, anticipation, and love. Negative emotions are painful and uncomfortable feelings that include anger, fear, sadness, frustration, disappointment and disgust.

Even though they’re painful and most people would prefer to avoid them, allowing yourself to experience negative emotions is necessary your mental wellbeing. Doing this enables you to connect to all of your experiences, have a realistic perspective of different situations, and the ability to relate to others when they’re struggling.

Some people believe they should only pay attention to positive emotions because negative emotions are harmful. Whenever they’re upset – no matter the circumstances – they think they have to cheer up. They tell themselves things like “just stay positive” and “I’m fine” even when they’re hurting. When they do feel sad, angry, disappointed, or any other painful emotion, they suppress it and judge themselves for being negative, often with the implication that they should be stronger than these emotions.

But forcing yourself to be positive isn’t good for you. It will have consequences for your mental health and harm your ability to form close relationships with other people. Being positive when it’s genuine and choosing to find reasons to be optimistic has many benefits and can help you be less affected by challenges and hardships. However, if you tell yourself you have to be happy even when you aren’t and forbid yourself from hurting, you aren’t being optimistic. This is known as toxic positivity.

Toxic Positivity

Always being positive might seem like a good quality, but in certain situations it’s toxic

Why is toxic positivity harmful?

Toxic positivity is harmful because:

1) Natural emotions are denied or suppressed

Feeling sad, angry, upset, or any other painful emotion is natural. If you try to live without these types of emotions and ignore them any time they surface, you’re distancing yourself from feelings that can send you important information and preventing yourself from having emotional experiences you need to have.

All emotions – especially negative ones – happen for a reason. Usually, they’re in response to your environment and happen in response to upsetting experiences, such as being treated unfairly or receiving bad news. When you’re upset, you don’t have to surrender to your emotions, but you still need to listen to what they’re telling you so you can understand what they mean and how you can comfort yourself. If you suppress emotions, you don’t let yourself process them or learn how you can feel better.

Suppressed emotions don’t disappear. They stay inside you waiting to surface. And when they do, even if it takes a long time, the result is usually more severe than it would have been if you had let yourself feel these emotions initially. By refusing to acknowledge and listen to your painful emotions when they occur, you’re setting yourself up for emotional pain in the future. You might also feel ashamed or angry at yourself for not being able to cheer yourself up or angry at yourself for being negative, which makes you feel even worse.

Suppressing emotions can even affect your health. You could develop anxiety, aggression, problems with memory, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer and premature death.

Furthermore, not all emotions are entirely positive or negative. You can be happy and sad about different experiences, such as the end of a relationship or the memory of people and places you’ve lost. If you tell yourself that thinking about someone you loved but can never see again is wrong because it makes you sad, you’re forcing yourself to stay away from memories that, although they come with pain, can also be comforting. Refusing to acknowledge these types of thoughts and memories distances you from these often important and meaningful memories.

2) You can’t change situations that are causing emotional pain

Painful emotions typically indicate there is something you should change.

Painful emotions usually happen when something is bothering you, even if you aren’t sure of the causes. The emotional pain these situations cause indicates you should try to change them,rather than ignoring what they make you feel in the name of positivity. You could in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs or have a job that makes you depressed, but if you ignore your negative emotions, you can never understand what areas of your life are taking an emotional toll.

If you shut these emotions out, you can’t learn from the them. Ignoring your negative emotions also means ignoring opportunities to improve your situation. You have to acknowledge there is pain and negativity in your life to bring about positive change.

However, there are some situations you won’t be able to change, such as missing something that’s gone and you can’t get it back. In these circumstances, you may need to acknowledge that you’re hurting so you can mourn your loss. By acknowledging this pain, you can process what you’re feeling and give yourself permission to be okay, which is accepting your situation as it is rather than trying to tell yourself if isn’t making you feel upset. Eventually these feelings will likely fade and you’ll feel better. But you can’t force yourself to be happy about something before you’re ready to accept your situation.

3) Your relationships with others will be limited

People who are struggling often look for comfort from the people they’re closest to. When someone turns to you for emotional support, you’re given the opportunity to show compassion and empathise with them by relating to their pain. You can make them feel much better by telling them that although you might not have experienced what they’re going through, you know what it’s like to feel this way and they’re not alone in having to endure these painful feelings.

Relationships are easy when people are happy, but if you’re willing to be there for someone when they’re hurting and tell them you still care about them even though they’re struggling, your relationships will become much more meaningful. Negative emotions are – for most people – an undeniable part of the human experience, so if you refuse to acknowledge that you have the same emotions that other people experience all the time, you’ll have a hard time relating to them.

4) You can’t build confidence in yourself to endure hardships

People who practice toxic positivity can’t grow through overcoming challenges because they don’t recognise emotional struggles.

Facing challenges is necessary to building hope and confidence. Because people who practice toxic positivity refuse to acknowledge painful emotions, they can’t experience the satisfaction of navigating through their hardships. They’re likely to avoid emotionally challenging situations altogether, or tell themselves that something they struggled to get through wasn’t actually that bad and therefore not an accomplishment.

When you experience challenges and are able to not only withstand them, but sometimes emerge stronger than you were before, you’ve proven to yourself that you have the strength and resources to endure hardships.

Toxic positivity can create the illusion that people who practice it are incredibly resilient because they refuse to be affected by hardships. But admitting you were challenged and asking yourself what the experience taught you is a more empowering experience than telling yourself you never struggled at all.

5) Societal wrongs aren’t challenged

Beyond affecting individuals, toxic positivity can prevent wider societal change from taking place.

Being treated unfairly because of entrenched prejudices is often very painful. This could be a minority being stereotyped because of their race, a woman being denied protection from her abusive partner, or someone from a disadvantaged background being refused opportunities to better themselves. The pain caused by these injustices must be acknowledged and challenged – not dismissed as too negative to talk about.

If someone, such as a member of a marginalised group, is facing injustice and they’re told to ignore their suffering and cheer up, then the larger systems that are holding them back can’t be challenged and eventually dismantled.

As a society, we need negativity and healthy conflict to identify where improvements need to be made.

Emotional pain is unavoidable and toxic positivity does not allow for this

Instead of trying to dismiss your painful emotions, you should understand that emotional suffering is an inescapable – and even necessary – part of life. Emotional pain can’t and shouldn’t be avoided.

Acknowledging negative emotions allows you to learn about yourself, challenge unhealthy situations, strengthen relationships by sharing painful emotions with people you’re close to, build resilience, and help bring about positive changes.

Difficulties are unavoidable and a full life will always present you with challenges and heartbreak. The solution isn’t pretending they aren’t happening, but to find a path through them and finding reasons not to be controlled by your painful emotions by choosing to pay more attention to the reasons you have to be happy. However, this is being positive – not practicing toxic positivity. When you’re being positive, your feelings are genuine, not forced or artificial so there aren’t harmful consequences.

The ability to find positivity in challenging situations is essential to overcoming hardships: people who have been through incredible traumas and losses affirm the power of positivity in helping them heal. But they don’t deny their painful emotions. They feel them for a time and learn what they can from them before working on improving their situation or accepting that it can’t be changed. Only when they’re ready do they try to stop hurting and consider their reasons to be grateful for what they have, instead of focusing on what they lost, which is a very different process than suppressing painful emotions as soon as they appear.

Toxic Positivity

Denying your painful emotions is hiding from your problems – not finding a solution

You shouldn’t try to ignore your negative emotions because you can’t stop yourself from feeling them – you can tell yourself don’t have them, but this is impossible. Everyone feels painful emotions and gets upset. And this doesn’t have to be bad – as long as you don’t let your emotions control you, they can be useful tools to help you better understand yourself and the people in your life.

Say no to toxic positivity

If you’re struggling to accept certain emotions, you may benefit from talking to someone who can help you realise you can have negative emotions and still be a good and happy person. Understanding how painful emotions can be useful is often difficult, especially if you’ve been taught that you shouldn’t pay attention to these types of feelings. Letting someone know what you’re going through, such as a friend you trust to respect your emotions, can help you reconsider how you think and feel about emotions. However, if you may have an easier time improving your relationship with emotions by talking to a professional. They can help you understand and work through these complicated and often conflicting feelings.

Emotional pain is like alarm bells ringing – you can’t just ignore the alarm and pretend you don’t hear anything. You have to find out why they’re going off and do something to solve the problem.

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