Toxic Positivity

By Hanna Yamato

You just lost your dear relative to cancer. You want to cry, you want to scream. But what do you do instead? Mask your feelings? Bottle up your thoughts and emotions? If all of this seems familiar, you might be experiencing toxic positivity. 

According to psychologist Dr. Jamie Long, toxic positivity, is best defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.” In other words, this gradual, deteriorating process stems from not only invalidating your emotions, but also denying your emotional needs as a whole. Just like almost anything else, too much of something can be bad for you. When you encounter anything in your life that is supposed to affect you emotionally and mentally, covering up that whole experience with excessive positivity is when it becomes toxic. By repressing these natural emotions—grief, fear, sadness, anger, and guilt—we tend to fall into a state of denial. Consequently, we can lash out on our loved ones, become increasingly jealous of those with apparent success, and fall into the “life sucks” mindset.

Toxic positivity surfaces from a plethora of causes—from feeling ashamed to express our true emotions, to feeling vulnerable and weak, the list goes on. As young adults, we often do not want to be seen as “broken” or “flawed” by society, thus leading many of us to pretend that things are going great, no matter how close we are to falling apart. Showing our vulnerability or our “vulnerable side” makes a lot of people insecure; hence many avoid doing so because they constantly ask this question to themselves: “If people knew __ about me, would their opinion about me change in a negative way?” Whatever this blank in the question represents to you, it most likely causes you to feel some kind of mortification. You hide whatever you are going through with silence, secrecy, and by saying to yourself over and over again: “I’m fine.”

By suppressing our emotions and denying the truth, we set ourselves up for even more difficulty when we come across another challenging situation in the future. Moreover, since the mind and body are intrinsically linked, overloading negative emotions without a healthy coping mechanism can lead to physical health problems as well. Licensed psychologist Dr. Audrey Ulke, from the NC Psychological Association asserts that these physical disruptions can range anywhere from a lowered immune system to a heightened risk for chronic illnesses. 

Although it is important to keep in mind that you cannot just easily “snap” out of this mindset, there are gradual steps you can take to learn to acknowledge your emotions. These include… 

  • Identify what triggers the distressing emotions (person, place, situation, event, etc.)
  • Find ways to relax, slow down, and unwind so you don’t quickly jump to conclusions.
  • Take care of your mental and physical health (take mental health days when needed, go out and exercise daily, eat a balanced diet, etc.)
  • Have a healthy coping mechanism or an outlet for your feelings. This can include communicating with supportive family members/friends and/or seeking professional help.

While it is a difficult time with the pandemic and anything else you may be experiencing, just know that your feelings are always valid. Not confronting your true emotions does not eliminate them; instead, it will cause you to spiral into more pain and suffering everyday. Being a healthy human being requires you to be conscious of your emotional needs so you can show up at your best. Give yourself permission to react to what has happened.