How to avoid toxic positivity in three simple steps and help those who are struggling

Two first responders confiding in one-another, without toxic positivity.

Understanding how toxic positivity can be problematic is critical to your recovery and imperative to creating meaningful change in the lives of others. 

First off, what is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is an attribute many people have and are unaware of; it involves false reassurances and the dismissal of negative emotions. 

When we receive advice to “stay positive” and “look on the bright side,” unfortunately, these cliché phrases can be less than helpful and even detrimental to a person suffering from substance abuse and mental health. 

Constantly pushing ourselves to stay positive can be an unhealthy way to cope. While having a generally positive perspective on life is an excellent tool for pushing through adversity, it’s vital to understand when being positive crosses the line and becomes harmful to everyone involved. 

Below are recommendations on avoiding toxic positivity and how to support others through it. 

How to avoid toxic positivity

One of the most destructive traits of toxic positivity is that it completely dismisses problems. 

Dealing with illness, financial trouble, work stress, family conflict, or addiction is overwhelming, and many people in these situations fall into a cycle of constant negativity. On the other hand, some people choose to meet life’s challenges with unyielding positivity. While this sounds great in theory, it might mean that these people ignore their problems entirely.

Some people use positivity as an excuse to avoid painful conversations or put off working through heavy emotions. Unfortunately, negative emotions can be exhausting, but the only way to release them is to acknowledge and process them.  

Here are three practices to help you refrain from toxic positivity: 

  • Refrain from excessive positive phrases, feel your emotions
  • Practice mindfulness to identify how you’re feeling
  • Before conversing with confidants, clarify that you’re looking for empathy, not advice

Remember, positivity isn’t bad. It’s only bad when using it disingenuously and suppressing other negative emotions.

How to support others

Offering advice to a person struggling emotionally or with addiction is tough.

You want to make that person feel supported and loved, but you also want to be realistic and helpful. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find the right words when trying to comfort someone.

Many people automatically respond with an over-generalized line about positivity. While these words may be well-intentioned, they lack real wisdom. They can 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 might also want to acknowledge that their circumstances are complex and that anyone in their situation would also be struggling. For example, people facing extreme addiction and mental health issues often deal 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’re going through. 

So telling individuals in this mental space that they should be more positive only confirms their worst fear, that they’re somehow ill-equipped to handle their emotions and circumstances. 

Instead, let your loved one know that a bit of negativity is healthy. The person can allow themselves to feel negative emotions while also remaining hopeful for positive change. Phrases like, “This is a tough situation, but I know you can get through it,” offers validation and support.

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