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As soon as January hits, the classic “New Year, New Me” phrase is blasted all over social media and sprinkled throughout everyday conversations. Now that’s not inherently a bad thing, but it tends to come with a lot of pressure to make big changes.
For some people, however, the struggles they face on a daily basis aren’t going to magically disappear because it’s the beginning of a new year — as much as we might wish that could happen. And when those struggles are met with a dose of toxic positivity, it can leave you feeling even worse about your situation.
What exactly is toxic positivity? Think of the last time you were told, “Look on the bright side” or “It’s not that bad. Things could always be worse.” You might have even told someone else these things in an attempt to make them feel better. However, it doesn’t actually help in the way you may think.
“Toxic positivity is when people try to ignore, delegitimize or underplay the negative feelings they or someone else are feeling in order to try to maintain a false sense of positivity or ‘good vibes,’” says anxiety therapist Kelly O’Sullivan, LCSW. “Even if well-intentioned, it’s very unhelpful to refuse to acknowledge that bad things can and do happen and that people have bad days or experience sadness and other negative emotions.”
If you’re looking to practice a New Year’s resolution that will be beneficial to you and those around you, then consider trying to avoid toxic positivity. Of course, it’s not always easy to avoid toxic positivity because we are constantly surrounded by it in our daily lives. However, there are some techniques you can implement into your life to change your dialogue around it and exposure to it.
Understand That Your Feelings Are Real.
It’s a lot easier and more comfortable to assure yourself and others that everything is OK or that things will get better. In reality, it’s healthy to feel emotions of all sorts — and that also includes negative ones, like sadness, anger and anxiety.
“As humans, we feel vast emotions that are not on the bright side,” says licensed therapist Julia Colangelo, DSW, LCSW. “I like to say even I’m one of the happiest people I know, even though I’m still not happy at least 50 percent of the time because that’s called being human.”
Studies have shown that toxic positivity puts too much emphasis on happiness, which can actually decrease levels of happiness and increase symptoms of depression.
Change the Dialogue.
Another way to avoid toxic positivity is to change the dialogue surrounding it. Whether you have a habit of trying to secure a false sense of positivity or not, there are ways you can shift the conversation to be more helpful.
O’Sullivan suggests trying out the following language shifts the next time you’re looking to support someone experiencing negative emotions:
Don’t say: Don’t cry.
Do say: How can I help?
Don’t say: Stop being so negative.
Do say: That must have been hard for you.
Don’t say: It’s not that bad.
Do say: It’s OK not to be OK.
Manage Your Social Media Feed.
Social media is full of “highlight reels” and “motivational quotes” that can make it feel that everyone else’s life is so fun and care-free when in reality that is not the case. Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid toxic positivity on social media, there are ways you can minimize exposure to it.
“Make sure you have a blend of motivational and inspirational (which often can walk the line rather closely with toxic positivity) and relatable and human teachings,” Colangelo says. “If you’re seeing messages that inspire you, make sure they also hold space for realness and having rough days, moving at your own pace and tuning into your feelings.”
Explain Your Needs to Loved Ones
Many of us have people in our lives who may use toxic positivity to help comfort and reassure us during difficult situations. However, if you’re looking to avoid toxic positivity, then having a conversation about what you need from other people can be beneficial.
“If you have someone in your life who speaks in a toxic-positive way, don’t be afraid to share your needs before they respond,” Colangelo says.
For example, she says you can head off toxic positivity by saying, “I’d love to share something with you, but I need you to listen and not respond with anything hopeful. I just need to vent and be heard right now.” Another option would be something along the lines of, “I know you mean well to always bring up the bright side, but I need to see the human side of things and feel this challenge out right now. I hope that’s OK with you.”
It is not selfish or wrong to set boundaries and inform people what you need from them at a specific moment, especially when you’re going through a hard time.
While toxic positivity is likely to persist in our society, there are tools you can use to minimize the effect of it on your life. If you find that coping with toxic positivity is still difficult for you, you may want to consider seeking professional treatment from a therapist or psychologist.