Toxic Positivity & The Problem With The “GOOD VIBES ONLY” Approach

Image: Unsplash

There came a movement some time ago that fooled a complex people with complex emotions into thinking that they should, and that they could, be happy all the time. It came dressed up in whip-smart quotes and clichéd life-mottos and unlikely success stories about the law of attraction, and in the guise of a potential doorway to a life of endless positivity, it became toxic.

Toxic Positivity, as defined by clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Zuckerman, is “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a persons emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset.” Basically, it’s a ‘GOOD VIBES ONLY’ approach to a human experience that is often anything but. Adapting and encouraging a positive mental attitude is of course not toxic in itself, but when it is offered as a “simple” solution to a problem or a person that it does not understand, it can only achieve the very opposite of its intent. Toxic positivity invalidates real emotions and attempts, through fluffy and dismissive language, to replace them with positive ones that are often inaccessible to the person experiencing the real emotions in the first place. And so the person feeling anything but happy becomes the victim: happiness is there for you, if only you’d choose it.

When we throw positivity so flippantly toward a problem that requires care and understanding, we don’t only stand in the way of the solution, we actually drive the solution further afield. A friend comes to us with an issue. We say stay positive, look on the bright side, things could always be worse. And while we may be left satisfied that we’ve zapped their negative emotions from existence with our words of wisdom, our friend walks away none the wiser. All they’ve got from the whole exchange is another problem: the inability to just snap out of it. But she made it sound so easy? What’s wrong with me?

It can only be assumed that those who dish out toxic positivity are out of touch themselves with real negative emotion. Not because they are psychological marvels who have never known anything but happiness, but because they have been sucked into the toxic positivity trap themselves. I know this because I’ve been there. I’ve read the books, followed the Instagram accounts, swallowed the quotes and spat them back out in pretty language, only to find that in the end, you can’t fix the world, or yourself, by dressing problems up in positive affirmations. There is a fundamental difference between practicing emotional avoidance and having a positive mindset. Toxic positivity encourages a situation in which the former masquerades as the latter, and therein lies the problem. Suppressed emotions. A fake smile. Everything’s fine.

None of this is to say that positivity in itself is bad, or that a genuine positive mental attitude cannot be achieved and benefitted from. Positive Psychology does exist but this is a professional and highly-respected school of thought, not to be confused with rattling off quotes we read on Instagram and assuming ourselves mental gurus. Lives may well have been transformed by the power of positivity and the programming of the human mind to naturally lean towards positive thought patterns, but these transformations are not achieved without first (and still as they arise) feeling the negative emotions too, and they are not achieved by the concept of positivity alone.

And so we must not be pressured by toxic positivity when we are feeling low, nor must we be complacent in our own toxic positivity when we are helping others. To force the one-optimism-fits-all narrative is to nullify the human experience and to hinder human growth. Because a healthy human is a whole human. A complicated, sloppy, authentic, sometimes up, sometimes down, valid-no-matter-what human.

It’s not about learning how to find the positive in the negative. It’s about learning how to feel the negative, feel it all, and to ride it out with hope.

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Aoife Chaney

Aoife Chaney

Putting pen to paper in an attempt to understand the unknown adventure that is this colorfully chaotic life