In theory: positive psychology is predicated on gratitude, resilience, and compassion–according to positivespychology.com. There is a benefit to cultivating gratitude. Turning our attention to the good influences in our lives, practicing resilience and compassion for others does generally make life better…in theory.
However, in recent years, the phrase toxic positivity has become increasingly popular as the line between positive psychology and discomfort with negative emotions has becomes blurred.
Instead cultivating an obsession over being positive, we ought to instead be realistic and constructive.
Much of toxic positivity is rooted in our point of view and a sense that we ought to always see the glass half full. However, seeing the glass half empty is necessary. Sometimes, it is necessary to identify the harsher parts of the human experience to be effective at seeking adequate solutions. Toxic positivity maintains a focus and a pressure to function optimally in spite of undesirable conditions. It undercuts the necessity for proactiveness and problem-solving.
Sometimes, the lack of proactiveness in how hyper-individualists approach positivity results in a potpourri of issues that work against social movements, relational understanding and personal resilience. These problematic aspects of what the concept of positivity has become can work to our detriment and feel rooted in the dismissal of harsh realities that we may have the luxury of turning a blind eye to. Other times, toxic positive weaponize our search for peace as a way to scapegoat those around us for our unwillingness to examine our own flaws and shortcomings.
In this way, the positivity movement needs rebranding in order to be practical, realistic and maintain its humanity. Setting realistic boundaries with others, accepting the relevance of human suffering (as opposed to repressing it), working through negative emotions in a way that is healthy and cathartic, and building relational resilience so that others can be heard and supported are actionable solutions that don’t negate resilience and compassion in the least. In fact, setting an aim to be proactive and self-reflective with our emotions can help us heal our traumas (which will remain as long as we deny our own psychology).
Before we delve into the rebranding of positivity, let’s examine the pitfalls of what positivity trends have become and the examples of why they work against our best interest, by undermining the original blueprint of positivity psychology and shortchanging our own psychology.
We Can’t All Be At The Center All The Time: Pervasive Self-Centering in Relational and Social Spaces
At the crux of modern-day positivity trends is pervasive self-centering. Many thought-leaders have circulated the idea of optimal productivity by means of cutting others off and “eliminating bad friends” who don’t “add to our” positive vibe. The problem with this is that it actually makes us less compassionate and devalues the humanity of others.
Disclaimer: We are under no obligation to form and maintain a connection with individuals who work against our best interest and attempt to dash our dreams.
Nevertheless, not every individual who isn’t positive needs to be eliminated from our social circle. Using positivity to devalue those around us creates a pervasive zeitgeist of unavailability and lack of personal accountability.
The invalidation of individuals who simply can’t keep up with our personal need for positivity and productivity glosses over the realities that those around us face–from a bad day to socio-economic crises.
Life is abundant with nuances and obstacles. Inevitably, there will be seasons when those around us cannot be as positive as we are. It is important to not approach relationships from the perspective of what others can provide us emotionally, but rather what it is we’re working to build with others mutually through reasonable expectations that don’t center our personal needs and undermine the needs of others.
Positivity trends often influence the denial of these realities and a linear form of thinking that delegitimizes complex psychology when our needs aren’t held at the center of others’ lives and interactions with us. Setting healthy boundaries to protect our inner peace, communicating to others, evaluating our expectations and being compassionate when others are hurting helps us to build the safety net that we need to thrive–One where we are encouraged to be vulnerable without fear of being abandoned or stigmatized for our struggles.
“We Don’t Owe Explanations” and Other Forms of Unreliability
Responsibility and humility are necessary aspects of psychological and personal development. There need to be stakes. Certain expectations of civility make the world a better place. We don’t have to say please, thank you, you’re welcome, hello and goodbye. We don’t have to ask how others are. We do so out of decency and acknowledgement. The concept of owing and entitlement in positivity trends frees us from any relational accountability. If we don’t like someone’s energy, we can simply cut the friendship loose and ghost.
Just like that, we don’t owe others an explanation for why we don’t respond or keep our commitments. Perhaps we want to take a “mental health day” or they didn’t agree with something we said… While an explanation isn’t owed, arguments can be made that much, if not all of social etiquette, isn’t obligatory. Out of consideration for the time and emotional well-being of others, we ought to be gentler and show a minimal level of regard.
Many positivity speakers often speak on cutting off others who aren’t adding to our attitude of positivity. This behavior holds humanity to an unrealistic standard while also basing personal value on what individuals can do for us as opposed to who they are independently– free agents with their own complexities, traumas, stressors, and hardships. Occasionally, some people might need to be left hanging–namely when our boundaries are violated and our personhood attacked.
Nevertheless, living in a world where we’re constantly faced with unreliability at the behest of minor inconveniences and trespasses, creates unnecessary turmoil and stifles our capacity to form and sustain healthy relationships long term. Rather than expecting what we individualize as perfection, perhaps we can adjust our expectations to more essential qualities such as support and loyalty, as opposed to projecting our emotional needs onto those around us.
Fear of Being Wrong
The denial of basic discomfort, unhealthy institutions and global suffering that many positivity trends breed is often rooted in the fear of being wrong or perceived as ignorant. Sometimes the discomfort of others can make us feel guilty or uncomfortable. One of the roadblocks to creating a more tolerant world and longevity in our relationships, is a social pride and phobia of being wrong that we fail to overcome when we’re met with our own mistaken thought patterns. Nobody wants to be wrong… and so the individual belief that we are always “the good guy” holds us back from having compassion for others.
We all have implicit biases and it is not possible to be right all the time. Positivity is often weaponized to invalidate opportunities for personal development and broadening of the mind in favor of self-validation. The ego-centricity of positivity trends often frame relationships and social dynamics in such a way that we are programmed to examine them through the lens of ourselves rather than entities of their own.
In the age of cancel-culture, we often fail to detach shame from ignorance. However, acknowledging our ignorance with grace and acceptance liberates us to grow and be flexible with the changes of the world, without using the positivity movement as a subterfuge to sweep our shortcomings under the rug and maintain the vibe.
The first step to learning and succeeding at anything in life is learning how to let ourselves be wrong with grace. As Erykah Badu put, “The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all”.
Cognitive Distortions, Reinforcing Intolerance and Canceling
In a world where we’re constantly living in fear of being “canceled”, the more hyper-individualist we become, the less tolerant we are, and the more cognitive distortions become more commonplace in our day-to-day interactions. Small slights, flaws, mistakes, and instances of discomfort are often personalized as individual attacks and reasons to discontinue our engagement. We often see intolerance through the lens of racism, sexism, homophobia, and intersectionally oppressive systems.
However, even for the spiritual and deeply liberal, our need for relational and political perfection often suffocates our capacity for interpersonal and institutional progress. By upholding the view that everyone– from those we interact with to those we listen to on Spotify–should be held to a standard that’s infallible, we are not actually achieving the social progress and change that we claim to want.
This attitude of canceling makes each of us punitive rather than constructive.
Our tendency to punish others through social media or ghosting doesn’t facilitate personal growth and accountability because backlash is so often enforced on a purely superficial level and as a means to invalidate whole careers. While a celebrity can be called out for making a racist or sexist comment, our attempts to punish them by unfollowing aren’t an effective long-term strategy for accountability. Moreover, another celebrity who simply behaved with mannerisms their fans didn’t like isn’t equivalent to structurally-oppressive offenses.
When we apply this attitude to our personal lives with those we cancel for being out of sync with us, we see first-hand how some behaviors don’t substantiate an actual conflict, but exemplify how canceling has gone from being a progressive vehicle to a personalized experience for people who have hyper-vigilant responses to others.
When we zoom in on micro-behaviors and view others as a reflection of our likes and dislikes, we fall prey to cognitive distortions and sometimes, cancel and smear the character of individuals who may not deserve it.
Everyone is Toxic Now: Character Assassination Through the Mislabeling of Clinical Pathologies
Toxic Positivity often manifests itself as a tendency of our individual positive values to be used to invalidate the humanity of others as well as the emotions and experiences of others by pressuring individuals to maintain a positive attitude in spite of circumstances. Aspiring to have a positive outlook in life is different than the unrealistic view that we can only ever express pleasure or find the joy in situations that might be circumstantially traumatic.
There is a difference between what positivity has become and what actual optimism and realism are. For these reasons, we need to rethink and rebrand positivity. Character Assassination happens when we zoom in on a minor trespass or flaw and invalidate the person entirely.
In recent months, forms of character assassination have become popular via the mislabeling of individuals using clinical pathologies such as the now popular phrase “toxic narcissist”. As one popular instagram therapist, Todd Baratz, points out frequently in his content, not everyone is toxic. Not everyone is a narcissist. The tendency to label any individual who doesn’t meet our needs as such is misappropriating clinical pathologies and overlooking basic human complexity.
Distancing from Suffering
Micro-invalidating and cutting off the pain of someone at a time of political distress and global chaos simply furthers a hyper-individualistic agenda in which we are unable to grant legitimacy to the very real socio-political systems that continue to uproot families, emotionally damage or marginalize others. Distancing because others find it hard to be “productive” is a primary example of how positivity has managed to invalidate the diverse narratives of suffering individuals by way of blocking them out, or simply arguing the point from the lens of our advantages.
During the George Floyd case, many spiritual healers took to social media to discuss how they viewed race and class as just “illusions”, meanwhile more cases of police brutality continue to plague the world. Whether or not someone believes that systems of oppression exist is irrelevant to those who are suffering at the hands of these systems.
During the onset of COVID, the world was split between those losing their homes, jobs, lives or working on the front-lines of the pandemic, and those who could be at home. It was a strange time, where some were facing the loss of their livelihood and mental health services were instantly congested by the state of emergency.
Yet, as the positivity trend became entrenched, many followers refused to participate in conversations that affected the lives of others on the basis of wanting to be positive–something that doctors and front-line workers did not have the luxury of doing.
The reason for this mass dissonance often relies on the reality of proximity to pain and suffering. Often, when we try to mitigate the emotional responses of others to traumas caused by identity, losses, and life stressors, what we’re really exercising is our advantage to turning a blind eye to protect our convenience.
For someone who transitioned their office to their house, found themselves with increasingly more time to dedicate to writing a novel, or simply went on a road trip–they could afford the luxury of maintaining a positive outlook, and moreover, the luxury of debate. This creates further divide.
Replace Abandonment and Disengagement with Healthy Boundaries and Directness
Millennials and Gen Z’s will have to grapple with frequent relational unreliability and abandonment as just a normal part of life. It is imperative that as a culture, we shift our perspectives away from who others are according to what we want, and respect that others may not and cannot mold to us or our need to be happy. Happiness, moreover, may not reside in our capacity to deny the harsher realities of the world.
Perhaps, what we can do to avoid abandonment, frequent conflicts, and toxic positivity is to communicate our expectations for one another, set boundaries accordingly and create space for others to behave outside the realm of our prerogative .We all have complexities and no one person can be perfect and positive all the time, no matter what we feel owed or how important our needs are to us.
Finally, using positivity as a way to avoid communication will only ever cause pain and confusion– to those around us and from those who bare witness to our lack of responsibility in interpersonal situations.
Functional Optimism, Proactiveness and Conflict Resolution Are More Constructive Than Maintaining “Positive Vibes”
Functional and actualized optimism that meets negative emotion and conflict with a focus on constructive approaches to conflict resolution and creates room to experience the full range of human emotion–is more attainable than an attitude of positivity all the time.
The positivity movement has found a way to rephrase negative emotions as “ruining the vibe” and psychologically unnatural. Thus, we often use this movement as why we avoid conversations that cause us to question our intention or our role in the social framework of society. While manifestation and a positive mindset can work for many, it is important to note that many real solutions cannot simply be brought to fruition by positive thoughts. The avenue of rejecting the suffering of others simply because we are out of their proximity is in actuality, quite detrimental to our social contract and to our own development as mature individuals.
Positivity is ideal. However, it is not always possible. Some things need to be felt and they need to be addressed even if doing so might be a temporary inconvenience to others. Affirmations can be healthy, but they are not a sufficient way to treat systemic, physical, or emotional distress. Blocking out those who express distress is denying our own humanity and causing further distress to those we love. Healing is relational and actionable.
Instead of creating a culture that approaches every issue and relationship through centering our own self-actualization, we can facilitate a better future by understanding the pain of others and learning how to approach the very real issues that surround us in a practical way. We can find a balance between healthy boundaries and basic empathy.
We can replace the pressure to “be positive” in the face of distress with a call to “be constructive” and deliberate in how we engage with the world…even if being constructive means making it a point to hear others and allow them to express their deepest hurts without fear of judgment, invalidation or abandonment.