toxic positivity

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Published on November 28, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

The term “toxic positivity” may seem like a contradiction. For those looking to create meaningful change in their life, understanding how positivity can be problematic in certain circumstances is critical. We received advice to “stay positive” and “look on the bright side.” Unfortunately, these cliché phrases can be less than helpful and even detrimental to someone who is suffering. Additionally, always pushing yourself to stay positive, even in truly painful or difficult situations, may be an unhealthy way to cope. Having a generally positive perspective in life is an excellent tool for pushing through adversity and lifting up others when they are feeling down. At the same time, it is vital to understand when being positive crosses a line and becomes harmful to everyone involved. 

When Times Are Hard

Everyone encounters stressors and especially challenging times in life. Dealing with illness, financial trouble, work stress, family conflict, or addiction can feel overwhelming. Many people in these situations fall into a cycle of constant negativity. On the other hand, some people choose to meet all of life’s challenges with unyielding positivity. While this sounds great in theory, it might actually mean that these people are ignoring their problems entirely. Unswerving positivity means choosing only to see the good in every situation. This strategy might feign off negative emotions and conflict temporarily. Still, eventually, it will only lead to problems becoming more substantial than they ever needed to be. Additionally, some people use positivity as an excuse to avoid painful conversations or put off working through heavy emotions. Negative emotions can be exhausting, but the only way to release them is to acknowledge and healthily process them.  

After a Trauma

Everyone deals with trauma differently, but some people choose to ignore the emotions that trauma creates entirely and “move on.” A common way that toxic positivity permeates a trauma survivor’s emotional state is with thoughts and justifications. Consider statements like, “It could have been worse”, “At least I survived”, and, “I have no right to complain, so I should just appreciate what I have.” These types of arguments only make negative emotions grow and become more potent with time. Eventually, unresolved trauma can result in mental illness, physical health problems, and substance use disorders. This is not to say that trauma survivors should spend all their time feeling miserable or wallowing in self-pity. Instead, avoiding toxic positivity means taking the time and energy to face your emotions head-on. Productively working through them, with the help of a mental health professional, is a much better solution. In this way, trauma can be managed instead of becoming larger than life.  Joy becomes genuine rather than a manifestation of forced positivity.

When Supporting Others

Offering advice to someone who is struggling emotionally or otherwise is hard. You want to make that person feel supported and loved, but you also want to be realistic and helpful. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find the right words when you are trying to comfort someone. As such, many people automatically respond with an over-generalized line about positivity. While these words may be well-intentioned, they lack any real wisdom. They may even make someone feel worse about themselves and their situation. Instead of pushing someone who is hurting to “see the silver lining”, focus on validating their feelings. Let them know that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or frustrated. You may also want to acknowledge that their circumstances are difficult and that anyone in their situation would also be struggling. People who are facing extreme circumstances are often dealing with a constant inner dialogue that tears them down. Addicted people have an inner voice telling them they are weak. Depressed people can feel like they somehow deserve what they are going through. Telling individuals in this mental space that they should be more positive is only confirming their worst fear: that they are somehow ill-equipped to handle their emotions or circumstances. Instead, let them know that a bit of negativity is healthy. They can allow themselves to feel negative emotions while also remaining hopeful for positive change. Phrases like, “This is a hard situation, but I know you can get through hard things,” offer validation and support.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers. Existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially tricky. Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career. Nor do you have to resign yourself to a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.

At Simple Recovery, we take a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction. This approach makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community. At Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we dedicate our time to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.