Toxic Positivity: When Self-Help Actually Hurts

Toxic Positivity: When Self-Help Actually Hurts

One of the biggest misconceptions I want to bust about manifesting is the idea that you have to be happy all the time.

While I actively teach that we are in charge of our own minds (and therefore our realities) there’s still only so much you can control! That means sometimes “bad” things are still going to happen.

Most people still fall victim to what I call Fairy Tale Thinking: the idea that if you land the job, the ring, the bank account (etc.) then you’ll be happy 24/7 for the rest of your life.

Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work like that! But the negative things we experience aren’t punishments. Nor are they things we should take personally (because if we did things right we’d avoid them).

As difficult as it might be to see in the moment, the negative experiences are meant for us just as much as the positive ones. It’s all just lessons in disguise and experiences designed to make us grow and expand.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity happens when we use positive thinking in a way that’s ultimately hurtful. For exmaple, ignoring your very real (bad!) emotions. Or minimizing someone else’s emotional experience.

If your goal for life is being forever happy and problem-free, you’re just setting yourself up for immense disappointment. Measuring your imperfect life against an impossible standard is never a good idea! It’s much healthier to just accept what this human life really is: a mix of high and low, good and bad, black and white etc.

If you take a look at Pinterest or Instagram, you’ll see loads and loads of feel-good quotes. (Mine included!) It’s plain to see our cultural obsession with feeling good. At times, it seems like there’s not a lot of room to experience the normal range of human emotion. In fact the message we get is the opposite: if you feel down for too long you should probably go find yourself a prescription.

When someone starts to feel down about something we’re all much too quick to try to make them feel better ASAP.

But let’s be honest: has the advice “cheer up!” ever worked on anyone in the history of the world?

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of well-meaning but wildly unsettling positivity advice, then you know how crap it feels.

Commanding someone to ignore their negative feelings and just be happy obviously isn’t a solution to anything–except maybe making the advice-giver feel better.

Part of the issue good advice is subjective. What feels supportive to one person might not to the next. Also, what doesn’t work for you today might be exactly what you need to hear tomorrow! The positivity issue is just not black and white.

The most important thing is to remember that this “be positive” advice is always coming from a good place. People are trying to help, even if they don’t fully understand the picture or have the skills to really help you.

It’s also crucial to remember that your fellow humans are empathetic beings. When they see someone in pain, they want to help them–partially because they don’t want to feel that pain themselves. It takes courage to let people be sad and grieve and be angry. But that’s what a true strong friend will do! We don’t need to rush our friends (or ourselves) through the process. Holding space for them to authentically experience their sadness is the most loving thing you can do.

So on that note, here are four super-common “stay positive” phrases that we all need to be more mindful about! Let’s stop pretending the bad times can be avoided and creating a more supportive space for when they do.

Toxic Positivity: 4 Phrases To Be Mindful About

Toxic Positivity Example #1:

Stop Being So Negative

Non-toxic alternative: It’s totally normal to be negative right now after what’s just happened!

As we already covered, commanding anyone to not feel their negative feelings is rarely helpful! It’s ridiculous to act as though negative thoughts are just a faucet we can turn on and off. If something “bad” has just happened to you, the only way through it is to allow yourself to feel and process your emotions. It’s impossible to just snap your fingers and get over it.

But of course, feeling your way through the experience also doesn’t mean you have to wallow there! So know that hanging out for too long (whatever too long might mean for you) will just keep you suffering unnecessarily. So at some point this advice will prove useful! (Just not at the beginning of the process.)

Always remember that truly feeling the negativity and acknowledging it always much more powerful and productive than trying to run away from it. Those feelings will bubble up in the end (and who knows when and where that might happen!). Why take the chance of raining your negativity down on someone in the future who literally has nothing to do with what’s happening right now? It’s much more healthy for you to do the work–as unpleasant as it might be–in the moment rather than inadvertently saving it all for a rainy day.

Toxic Positivity Example #2:

Don’t Give Up

Non-toxic alternative: It’s okay to give up sometimes! What do you really want to happen right now?

Look, I don’t want you to give up on your dreams about 90% of the time. The road to success can be rough at times so it’s important to persevere. But here’s the truth: not all dreams are actually meant to be realized! They’re simply meant to be explored. Going after them ultimately brings you more lessons about yourself–and sometimes those lessons mean changing your mind about what you thought you wanted. Sometimes that means you’ll realize (half-way through medical school or two weeks away from your wedding) that what you’re doing is actually all kinds of wrong for you.

Every desire reveals a clue about our Shadow, if we’re willing to look closely. So when you start doing that Shadow work, sometimes the thing you thought you wanted becomes irrelevant. Maybe you were really just trying to impress someone or trying to make yourself feel better about a perceived flaw. Or maybe you figure out the real secret: that when you really love yourself you don’t actually need the guy, the car or the job to “make” you feel good.

But rest assured, if it’s really time to quit, you’ll know it. That voice inside you isn’t going to go away! Once your soul gives you the nudge, it’s only going to get louder and LOUDER until you pay attention to it.

Toxic Positivity Example #3:

There’s Always A Silver Lining/Look On The Bright Side

Non-toxic alternative: It’s hard to see the good in this situation right now. We’ll make sense of it later.

Life is all about lessons so it’s true: eventually there will be a lesson to learn! Ultimately, you will grow from this painful experience. One day in the future, you’ll see exactly what the bright side is.

But when you’re in the middle of a shitty life-has-just-crushed-you moment, the bright side is an awfully long way away. When people tell you that there’s a silver lining while you’re in that state, you might just have to stifle the urge to punch them. Hard.

Yes, you will get there but when your wounds are raw and red you’re going to have a hard time even conceiving about what the lesson might be. But don’t get upset about someone reminding you about this annoying fact! Instead, realize that this experience is a process.

While no one will be able to fully understand your pain and no one has walked exactly in your shoes, people have experienced loss, betrayal, disappointment etc before. (And if you’re being truthful with yourself, even you have already experienced these things!) There will be a day when the pain is not overwhelming that you’ll be able to see things more clearly. Hold onto that idea as your beacon of hope. But please don’t give into the pressure to run through your pain or pretend that it’s not there. That’s simply doing your lesson a disservice.

Toxic Positivity Example #4:

You’ll Get Over It

Non-toxic alternative: This is a tough time. But you’ve done hard things before.

It’s true: time heals all wounds. (Or greatly minimizes them anyway.) But when you’re grieving or processing a loss you will need some time to go through the full range of emotions. Don’t let anyone rush you to the happiness finish line! Your sadness or anger isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the more you run from it, the worse it will seem to become.

While others might rush you to “get over it”, just remember that they are experiencing their own reckoning with reality. It’s human nature to want everything to stay the same forever. When our friends encounter loss, it’s a very real reminder that this can never be the case. Your friend probably isn’t trying to minimize your pain on purpose. But they are clumsily attempting to keep their own world from tilting off-kilter. New experiences, even in those around us, can ultimately trigger our fear mechanisms. So trying to make you “get over it” is just a way for them to placate their own fear.

Change really is the only constant in life! Most people do a good job of ignoring this fact. So feel free to respectfully ignore anyone who wants you to get over your experience ASAP. The reflex they’re experiencing really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Journal Prompts:

What times have you experienced toxic positivity?

How can you reframe your experiences to be more empowering?

Are you going to put this toxic positivity training into practice? I’d love to hear your experiences with it, both for receiving and giving out support and advice! We need to do better for each other and for ourselves.

Good luck with it and as always much love!

Jenn Stevens The Aligned Life

PS Looking for more? You might also want to check out this post about expectation hangovers and the Law of Attraction or this one about do you know how powerful you are?.

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Toxic Positivity: When Self-Help Actually Hurts


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