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Toxic Positivity

Toxic Positivity

I’m fine!

How are you – really? Whether it’s true or not, our culture dictates that we keep it light and upbeat when we interact with others.

Think about it. Imagine bumping into an acquaintance and having this conversation:

You: Hey, how have you been?

Friend: Oh, my anxiety has been triggered by news events this week. It’s pretty intense. How are you?

You: Not good. Feeling a little hopeless today. Want to grab a coffee?

It wouldn’t happen, right? Have you ever told a friend that you’re having a rough day, only to be told to cheer up and think positive?

Toxic Positivity

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the bright side. However, difficult emotions are legitimate, too, and have to be acknowledged when they happen.

Toxic positivity is the concept that keeping positive – always positive – is the only right way to live your life. Painful emotions are seen as inherently bad.

Toxic positivity is the concept that keeping positive – always positive – is the only right way to live your life. Painful emotions are seen as inherently bad.

Harm comes when hard emotions are denied. Toxic positivity “…can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak,” says Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, MD.

Pressure to have “good vibes only” can come from those around us, or from ourselves. Depression can amplify self-criticism. If we feel jealousy, fear, or sadness, we think that something is wrong with us.

Emotion Suppression and Emotion Acceptance

Toxic positivity encourages emotion suppression. This is an attempt to avoid experiencing difficult emotions. Research has shown that this tactic is actually maladaptive. Ironically, a decreased emotional response in the moment builds up pressure and leads to more intense emotions later.

The tactic of emotion acceptance, challenging though it may be in the short term, will serve you better in the long run. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) defines emotion acceptance as “the process of observing and allowing emotional experiences to occur as they unfold in the context of the present moment, without attempts to control, suppress, or alter them in any way.”

This requires two subtle shifts in mindset.

  • First, emotion acceptance suggests that we consider emotions as neither good nor bad, but rather as informative. Our emotions may give us clues about what is off balance in our environment. They are also a great way to signal our needs to others – for example, a person who is sad invites reassurance.
  • Second, emotion acceptance redirects our attention from that internal loop of negative thoughts to an awareness of how our feelings fit into the world around us. This takes us out of that helpless emotional tailspin, actually changing activity in the brain.

The Science

Studies have considered emotion acceptance from different directions, but they all conclude that it is beneficial.

Brain Activity

That feeling of being stuck in anxiety is echoed by brain anatomy and physiology.

The amygdala is the alarm center of the brain. Normally, it connects freely with the prefrontal cortex, which controls logical behavior. When there is a threat – real or imagined – the amygdala alarms and the connection is shut off. You stop thinking logically for a moment. All you hear is the amygdala screaming RUN! When you’re safe, the connection to the prefrontal cortex opens again.

In an anxiety attack, this connection doesn’t re-open when the threat is over. Your brain just keeps alarming and alarming.

So, in one study, participants were asked to contemplate their habitual worry thoughts. They were divided into three groups. One was coached to use emotion acceptance, one to use emotion suppression, and the third to worry as usual. Functional MRIs – imaging that shows activity in the brain – were conducted.

The results? In those using emotional acceptance techniques, the MRIs showed increased activity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. When they faced their feelings, researchers could actually watch their brains starting to work better.

In an anxiety attack, your brain just keeps alarming and alarming.

Intensity of feelings

Studies have shown that suppressing emotions doesn’t make them go away. Quite the opposite: it can make them stronger.

One study included some participants diagnosed with anxiety or depression, and some without. They watched a sad, emotion-provoking film. Afterward, they reported their experience and how they had regulated their emotions while watching it.

All of them reported an increase in negative emotions. However:

  • Those with anxiety and depression judged their emotions as less acceptable, and they suppressed them more.
  • In all participants, increased suppression correlated to increased negative emotion.
  • Emotions that were rated as less acceptable were also rated as more intense.

In other words, people who tried to push their emotions down felt worse, not better.

In another study, three groups of participants listened to a ten-minute instructional recording and were then exposed to a stressor. Depending on the group, they were briefed on emotion acceptance, emotion suppression, or a neutral narrative.

  • The emotion acceptance group was less anxious (self reported) and less avoidant (more willing to participate in a second challenge).
  • The emotion suppression group had more anxiety during the stressor.

If you accept your emotions, you may feel calmer and feel less need to avoid the situations that stress you.

If you accept your emotions, you may feel calmer and feel less need to avoid the situations that stress you.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Again, there’s nothing wrong with looking for the silver lining. The problem comes when we give in to pressure – from others, or from ourselves – to invalidate the emotions that we are genuinely feeling.

When you recognize that you’ve slipped into toxic positivity territory, consider trying any of these tactics:

  • Express, don’t suppress. If you must, find a socially acceptable way to do it, like the proverbial punching of the pillow, but always experience the current emotion without shame or apology. Trying to avoid it will prolong it or make it worse.
  • Acknowledge that others may not cope with things the same way you do. They may not be able to handle depression or anxiety. A lot of people try to change what makes THEM uncomfortable. Let them be themselves. Don’t worry about it. Find other people for support.
  • Remember that it is okay to not be okay! Life is not an Instagram feed. There are tough moments. You are not flawed, you’re human. It’s not only acceptable to feel the emotions, it can be quite cathartic and informative.

CONCLUSION

Have the courage to feel what you need to feel. Don’t let judgment from others or from yourself hold you back. The good emotion is the one you’re feeling right now. Let yourself experience all your moments, and you may start to notice the difficult moments becoming fewer and farther between. Now, that sounds like “good vibes” to me.


References

Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D. H., Brown, T. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2006). Acceptability and suppression of negative emotion in anxiety and mood disorders. Emotion, 6(4), 587–595.

Ellard, Kristen K. et.al. April 11, 2017. Neural correlates of emotion acceptance vs worry or suppression in generalized anxiety disorder. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 12, Issue 6, June 2017, Pages 1009–1021,

Levitt, Jill T. et al. The effects of acceptance versus suppression of emotion on subjective and psychophysiological response to carbon dioxide challenge in patients with panic disorder. Autumn 2004. Behavior Therapy. Vol 35.4, pp 747-766.

Lukin, Konstantin Ph.D. Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side. August 1, 2019. Psychology Today.

Scully, Simone M. ‘Toxic Positivity’ Is Real — and It’s a Big Problem During the Pandemic. July 22, 2020. Healthline.com.

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