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.