Don't worry if you've never heard of Toxic positivity. This is a pretty new concept in the world (or at least a new term for it), and it came up following the "Great Life" illusion people post on social networks, along with the increasing awareness we have of mental wellbeing. In theory, high self-awareness and worrying about others are good things, but do we ever take it too far? Are our efforts to raise the spirits of a depressed person and calm anxious people actually doing more harm than good? Not everything can be solved with words like "happiness is a choice" or "think positive".
We often have the best intentions at heart when we say stuff like this, but in reality, they can encourage the person to ignore the problem and not to solve it or cope with it. So how does one recognize toxic positivity and how to avoid it? Here are four tips and signs that will help you get rid of it.
1. Ignoring the impact of negative emotions or trying to make them seem less significant
People using this method are trying to use their positivity to make others more positive by trying to take away the importance of a specific issue or problem. This is usually done with short sentences or proverbs and quotes that make light of the real feelings the other person is feeling, trying to make them seem unimportant.
In this way, your true emotions and the circumstances of your life are ignored when you hear things like "just think positive", or "be more active" - as if the problem is so trivial as to be fixed with platitudes and positivity. But that is not realistic when we're talking about true depression or any other mental issue.
We all struggle against negative emotions and anxiety, and at those moments, the last thing you need are empty platitudes. The thought that just being positive around you will make you better belittles the importance of what you are feeling.
Toxic positivity tells us our problems are not problems, and that you're the ones making them so. But instead of offering real help, your problems are, in effect, ignored. These people usually mean well, but may also be too lazy to try and invest real time and attention listening to your true problems without judgment.
2. Compare and Contrast
"You can't be sad, look how good your life is."
"You can't be depressed, there are so many people who'd love to have the life you have."
These kinds of sentences are perfect examples of toxic positivity that mask themselves as advice. This 'advice' fails to make a difference between objective reality and subjective reality. In a perfect world, we would all feel exactly the same as our exterior circumstances. If we had a good day - we'd be happy. If we had a bad day - we'd be sad. If we're rich - we'd be happy. If we're poor - we'd be sad.
This is a grand simplification of how emotions and wellbeing truly works. In reality - rich people still commit suicide and some poor people are the happiest people you'll ever meet. There is much more to human emotion than exterior circumstances. Some people have an unbalanced chemical system in their brains, and even when everything seems to be going well, they still feel terrible. They want to feel as good as they're supposed to, but it just isn't how they are truly feeling.
Most of them are too ashamed to admit it because they are seen as not appreciative of what they have. This kind of environmental attitude causes people to hide their true emotions, which leads them down a darker road still.
3. Negative Shaming
Negative shaming happens when positivity is held in such high regard that people will simply NOT ALLOW any kind of negativity around them. If you are the depressed person in the group, you may be asked to leave, or to 'stop bringing everyone down', instead of being offered sympathy and empathy. This kind of 'positive attitude' is actually hostile and ends up isolating the depressed person, causing them to feel alone and unable to be themselves. Once again, this sends the person on a darker road, where they cannot share their true emotions. These are the kinds of things that lead people to isolate themselves and could even result in deaths of despair: drugs, suicide and risky behaviors.
4. Hiding Emotions
As we've mentioned above, the result of the previous 3 types of toxic positivity is usually the same - the depressed person isolates their emotions, hides them and tries not to display them in front of the other person. This can either be because they don't want to hear empty words (#1), don't want to feel ashamed because their lives are supposed to be good in comparison with others (#2) or do not want to suffer negative results from other people who, ironically, don't want to be near negativity (#3) themselves.
These 3 all come from OTHER people. This one, however, comes from YOU. You are the ones who has, potentially, the most negative effect on what you are feeling. That is not to say it is your fault or that you can make yourself feel better, but you can certainly make yourself feel WORSE. It helps to be reminded that your emotions are not your fault, most of them are chemical reactions of the body. If you don't feel like you have friends with whom you can be honest about these feelings and receive honest support - it may be time to find better friends.
How to Avoid Toxic Positivity
As you see, toxic positivity is not that easy to detect because it often hides as an honest attempt of helping or advising you. It could very well be that the other person is not doing this to be mean to you or belittle you, but actually thinks they may be helping. That is because it is hard for them to imagine your real situation, something they have never experienced.
Still, the result is that your emotions are not being respected and you are made to feel even more alone. The best way to handle that is not to wait. Call people out it immediately, not sarcastically or with anger - but with honest feedback on how their advice makes you feel, and why it won't help. Explain to them how they CAN help you, offering support and love when you need it most and listening when you need to be listened to. Your true friends, those that really want to help you - will do that for you gladly.