In the age of social media, we constantly see our friends and family posting about “having a positive attitude” or “having a positive outlook on life, all the time!” While being upbeat at times may be important, it also may come as a surprise to some that it is both okay and important to feel your more difficult feelings. The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the idea that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. Toxic positivity means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. Sounds good right? Not so fast. Toxic positivity actually is not an effective strategy, for many reasons.
When you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger. Avoiding negative emotions reinforces this idea and behavior because you avoid feeling them, which tells yourself that you don’t need to pay attention to them. While you are trapped in this cycle, these emotions become bigger and more significant as they are unprocessed. Telling yourself that sadness, anxiety, stress or grief are formidable rather than manageable is simply unsustainable. Evolutionarily, we as humans cannot program ourselves to only feel happy. Wouldn’t that be nice!
By avoiding these emotions, you are losing valuable information. For example, when you are scared, your emotions are telling you, “be aware of your surroundings.” Emotions themselves are information—they give you a snapshot of what is going on at any given moment, but they don’t tell you exactly what to do or how to behaviorally react. For example, if I am afraid of a dog and I see one up ahead on the sidewalk, that doesn't mean I have to cross the street, it just simply means that I am perceiving the dog as a threat. Once a person identifies the emotion, s/he decides whether s/he wants to avoid the dog or act courageously and face the fear.
When people don't pay attention to their negative feelings and come across like they don't have them, it makes them less approachable and relate-able. These people probably give off the impression that they don't have any problems, which most people can intuit is not so. Rather, you might find this person annoying, or difficult to connect with. Imagine trying to have a meaningful relationship with someone who ignored sadness or anxiety.
What you can do instead
Accepting emotions helps with coping and decreasing the intensity of these emotions.¹ Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend. Getting things off your chest, even negative, is like lifting a weight from your shoulders, even if it’s more difficult than pretending everything is fine.
Emotions are not good or bad, or positive or negative. Instead, think of emotions as guidance; emotions help us make sense of things. If you’re sad about leaving a job, it probably means that experience was meaningful! If you feel anxious about a presentation, it probably means you care about how you are perceived.
Emotions are not only a way for our mind to clue us into what’s happening, but they’re also information to the people that surround us. For example, if we are sad, it pulls for comfort, if we communicate guilt, it pulls for forgiveness.
While it may be beneficial to try and look on the bright side of things and find the silver lining in your life experiences, it’s important to also acknowledge and listen to our emotions when they aren’t as pleasant. No one can be a ray of sunshine 24/7; humans just don’t work like that. In fact, paying attention to and processing your emotions as they come and go may help you better understand yourself, and the people around you.
Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Ridgewood and Hoboken, NJ. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.