Positive lifestyle culture is more prevalent than ever. From constant affirmations to viral motivational videos, your social media timeline may feel like a montage of everyone “living their best lives.” But is all this relentless positivity really healthy? Without awareness, words and actions intended to motivate may make others feel devalued.
Suppose you feel discouraged after a pep talk that was meant to lift you up, or maybe you hesitate to share anything other than good news with those closest to you. If so, toxic positivity could be at play.
Good intentions—but not always good results
Has someone ever told you, “It’ll be okay,” or “Everything happens for a reason, look at the silver lining,” after you expressed sadness or fear? They may have said those words hoping that they would comfort you and refocus your energy on better times to come. Sometimes, these seemingly positive sentiments can be consoling. But sometimes, they can make it harder to deal with your feelings in the moment.
Positive thinking can improve physical and mental health.1 But when misused, positivity may have the opposite effect.
“Anytime positivity is used to ignore or dismiss negative emotion, to shame someone, or is the only acceptable option for how to think or feel, it’s toxic,” says Bright Dickson, Truist’s resident expert on positive psychology.
While healthy positivity leaves room for acknowledging and discussing uncomfortable feelings, toxic positivity can create a disconnect—potentially making others feel ignored, weak, or wrong for not exuding the same happiness they see others displaying. A classic symptom of toxic positivity is ignoring your true emotions, but studies show that when people are expected to ignore their negative emotions, they are likely to feel more sad.2
The effects of toxic positivity are varied and can ripple across not just your mental health, but your financial health, too. For example, overconfidence in volatile assets like cryptocurrencies and meme stocks hurt some investors who bought into the hype when those assets were reaching their all-time highs—right before they dropped drastically in value.
Instead of leaning into the hype, those investors would’ve been better off relying on research and basic investing wisdom to help them toward their end goals.
“Finances and emotions don’t mix,” advises Brian Ford, Truist’s head of financial wellness. Still, he says to “be mindful of your emotions and address them. We’re not sweeping our emotions of fear and finances under the rug.”
4 ways to help keep positivity positive
One study found that over 67% of survey respondents experienced some form of toxic positivity within the last week.3 But if you’re aware of it, it’s easier to protect yourself and those around you from it. Consider these tips when you feel like the positivity isn’t helping.
1. Embrace the bad with the good
The highs and lows of different emotions serve a purpose, and it’s important to acknowledge the not-so-fun feelings in addition to the better ones. Doing so may offer deeper insight into your unique mental and psychological needs.
“Emotions on their own are not good or bad. They’re your body telling you to listen,” says Dickson.
Instead of forcing positivity to cope with bad feelings, consider why you feel the way you do. Use your emotions as tools for exploring their root causes. Developing awareness—for both yourself and those around you—is one of the most important things you can do to combat toxic positivity.
2. Make time for your mind
Practicing mindfulness can help you rewire your brain’s thinking patterns to be more in tune with your feelings and help you develop your awareness.
Take a moment to meditate or sit quietly and reflect. Notice and accept all your emotions in a calm state without judgment. Try to avoid focusing on only good feelings or suppressing negative emotions. Eventually, you’ll learn to identify your emotions as signals about what’s happening in your mind and body.
When you are aware and present in the moment, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by emotion and react impulsively.
3. Unplug from social media
Whatever your platform of choice, social media can expose you to a surplus of thoughts and opinions. Whatever feelings you’re feeling may seem misplaced amongst a flood of high-energy skits, workout challenges, and motivational videos. (Keep in mind, most people on social media are only showing the “best” versions of themselves!)
Sometimes, a simple break from social media can help you block out noise and feel more in tune with yourself. You can also clean up your feed by unfollowing accounts that may be fueling toxic positivity.
4. Be open and have real conversations
When we distance ourselves from emotion, we create a distance from other people.
“Toxic positivity drives people away from you, resulting in fewer quality relationships,” Dickson says. “And we know that the happiest people have the strongest and deepest relationships.”
It can be challenging to address pain, sadness, and anger—but take the time to listen and learn how your words impact others. Ask others questions so you can understand their needs and feelings. But also, be honest about your own feelings—the good and the bad. Doing so can help you keep anxiety in check and build stronger relationships.