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Toxic positivity - too much holiday cheer

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Al Waller: We’re back with another edition of Clearpath – Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller and joining us today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute® to discuss toxic positivity, its potentially negative impacts, how to identify it, prevent it, and for ways to cope if it should actually happen to us.

Well, with the holidays quickly approaching, many of us (knock on wood) will be looking forward to spending time with family and friends as well as feeling that tinge of optimism that comes with the season.

That said, it’s important to know that we shouldn’t over burden ourselves attempting to be positive at all costs as it might prove upsetting to others and for that matter, detrimental to our own personal mental health.

So Mihaela, let’s break things down, starting with the basics in terms of what exactly is toxic positivity?

Mihaela Vincze: Toxic positivity is the concept that keeping exclusively positive is the way to live a fulfilled life. It is unrealistic to expect to feel happy all the time and this standard can make us feel even worse because it forces us to repress difficult emotions by pretending to be happy when we’re struggling. By not allowing ourselves to process our emotions, we may actually end up prolonging them, which can be really damaging.

Al: Interesting, well then, could you provide us with a real-world example of this happening in day-to-day life?

Mihaela: Let’s say that you’re having a bad day and you’re not being your chipper, energetic self. Your loved one comes by and says something along the lines of “what do you have to be down about? This holiday season is too beautiful to be anything other than joyful.” This may cause you to feel some shame and maybe even rage because you do not feel supported or seen by someone you love.

Toxic positivity may seem harmless, and in some instance, it might be, but it can also cause people to feel like something is wrong with them for feeling human emotions that may not be classified as positive.

Al: So, if I’m reading you correctly, toxic positivity sounds like it could actually have some fairly serious impacts. Say for instance, someone might unconsciously be ignoring mental health issues because they believe they must carry on with a 24/7 façade of always acting positive, right?

Mihaela: Exactly, Al. With toxic positivity, negative emotions are construed to be “bad” and avoided at all costs. Instead, positivity is pushed, and real human emotional experiences are set aside or in some instances, completely rejected.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma can deter a person from seeking mental health treatment – when chances are they believe they must be positive at all costs, they may feel too ashamed to get help. To illuminate this concept even further, a 2020 review of 29 studies of domestic violence found that a positivity bias might even cause those who are experiencing abuse to downplay its severity and remain in abusive relationships.

Al: I see. So, in essence, toxic positivity can cause people to ignore real harm in order to remain or appear excessively positive. If you will, it almost sounds “Pollyannish to the nth degree” – which I think any way you slice that, it just doesn’t sound healthy, natural…or sustainable for that matter.

Well then, for those wondering, how can well-intentioned individuals guard against toxic positivity?

Mihaela: The holiday season is a happy time, but it can also be very difficult for some, especially if their loved ones aren’t around to celebrate. As we interact with others during this holiday season, we should be mindful that attempts to be overly positive could end up making people feel a lot worse.

Remember, what makes positivity toxic is that it dismisses authentic emotions. Instead of saying “don’t worry you’ll get through it” or “positive vibes only,” try to say something like “that sounds really difficult. I’m sorry you’re experiencing that.” This will make people feel heard and supported, as opposed to disregarded and forced to have emotions that are unnatural.

Al: Alright, I get you. Well, let’s just say that we personally encounter toxic positivity in our lives. How do you recommend we go about coping with the potentially negative impacts?

Mihaela: Avoid blaming yourself if someone points out that you’re not "happy enough." During these moments, try to remove yourself from the situation and take some time to process your feelings.

Not too long ago, my car broke down, and I’ve already put a lot of money into fixing it. I told a friend and she said that I should avoid the headaches by buying a new one. Although I knew she was well meaning, I felt worse in that moment because I really like my car and even if I’ve already spent more on my car than I’ve budgeted. I also have other financial responsibilities that take priority right now. So, I don’t have room to purchase a new one. Rather than accepting her words as fact and ignoring my feelings, I disregarded her comments and took a moment for myself, rather than pretending everything was okay.

Al: Well, that sounds like a sensible, healthy approach Mihaela. But then again, in a perfect world perhaps that friend would have offered to buy you a new car, right? But seriously, what other steps would you recommend?

Mihaela: If you feel stifled by emotions, try to use a self-soothing strategy rather than turning to an unhealthy coping mechanism. Toxic positivity may leave us feeling unheard, angry, and upset. Try a technique to comfort your negative feelings. The Connor Integrative Health Network at University Hospitals suggests activities like listening to music, touching something comforting, and visualizing your favorite place, all activities to help you sooth yourself.

Al: Yes, the right kind of music definitely works. And well, my “go-to” is getting outside (weather permitting) for a walk…it energizes me to get fresh air and is a chance to process, ultimately, enabling me to clear my head.

What other constructive thoughts would you like to share with us?

Mihaela: Let yourself really feel your emotions. Suppressing your emotions can have negative effects on our health. Recognizing how you feel without judging yourself is really important. You can even do this by writing in a journal or talking to someone supportive. Like the saying goes, you need to “feel it to heal it”.

Al: “Feel it to heal it.” I really like the sound of that, and I think that honesty really comes through. It’s certainly a lot healthier than ”fake it till you make it.”

Well, those are exceptional ideas, Mihaela. Now, anything else you’d like to suggest before we wrap things up?

Mihaela: Toxic positivity encourages us to ignore difficult emotions, causing us to suppress them, which can potentially intensify the power of these feelings. Forcing positivity on yourself and others is not going to achieve the intended outcome— feeling better. So, instead of spreading toxic positivity, we should try to spread support and validation.

Al: Sounds like a plan, and thank you Mihaela, for sharing your exacting research and insights with us today.

ClearPath: Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s Podcast Central and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

We hope you’ll join us for an upcoming 2-part episode focusing on the New Year and a new you.

Until then I’m your host, Al Waller… stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

Clearpath is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.