Awhile back, I published an article about how the self-help industry sometimes gaslights us. It got a lot of response, mostly positive, but also generated confusion for some people. What I was referring to in the article is a viral strain of misinformation that has affixed itself (like a tumor) to the personal growth conversation for more than a century: toxic positivity.
The roots of positive psychology can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century and form a basis for much of what is written and practiced in the personal development industry today. This approach is based in research and has been shown to be effective in improving health and well-being. Some of what is popular in the self-help world (and on our Instagram feeds), however, is a disastrous oversimplification of these ideas which often results in unhealthy behavior.
The underlying message of toxic positivity is: if things aren’t going well for you, it must be your fault.
We’re constantly bombarded with marketing, messaging and memes telling us to #staypositive and #liveourbestlives by doing more yoga, trying another diet or “raising our vibe”. There are hundreds of self-help books and self-styled gurus who will tell you that all you have to do is stay positive and work hard and you can have whatever you desire. But the underlying message of this is: if things aren’t going well for you, it must be your fault because you’re just being negative or not trying hard enough. And that’s about as helpful as a concrete parachute.
So, what’s the difference between healthy positive thinking and toxic positivity? Here are a few things to try, along with a few to watch out for.
Signs of toxic positivity
Staying positive at all costs — There are several schools of thought that advocate maintaining a relentless and uncompromising level of positivity at all times. Most of these come from versions of either the prosperity doctrine or the law of attraction (which are essentially two flavors of the same thing). This approach to positivity is not only unrealistic, it’s unhealthy.
As humans, we have a full range of emotions at our disposal and we can’t turn them off like a faucet. It’s important to acknowledge and process our emotions, even the “negative” ones like anger, grief or loneliness. Repressing our emotions can even be bad for our health.
Blaming yourself for things you have no control over — It’s one thing to point out that being more optimistic can make us feel better but the flip side of that often turns into blaming yourself for things that you don’t really control. Shifting your mindset can be powerful but it isn’t the only factor in many situations.
Many “experts” claim their wealth and influence as proof that this approach works, but ignore the fact that the vast majority of them also were also born near the top of the power structure.
I’ve talked to people who blame themselves for things like illness or domestic abuse because they’re convinced that they are creating their problems through not being positive enough or not shifting their energy or mindset the right way. Not only does this belief create self-blame, it can lead people to avoid or delay seeking help when they need it.
Larger, systemic issues such as racism, sexism or other forms of oppression are real and not just a misperception or manifestation by those experiencing them. Stripping away this important cultural context when addressing personal development actually causes harm.
The children in cages at the US border aren’t there because they didn’t adequately “raise their vibe”.
Using positivity as an excuse to bypass compassion — The above is hardly surprising, considering that many of the people preaching positivity take it to the level of blaming people for attracting anything negative that’s in their lives. Many of these “experts” and influencers claim that their own wealth and influence is proof that this approach works, but what they don’t talk about is that the vast majority of them also were also born near the top of the power structure and with a fair amount of privilege. For example, Rachel Hollis, author of the bestselling Girl Wash Your Face, is more than blunt about this approach, stating “If you’re unhappy, that’s on YOU.”
Is it, though? While that may be true for some people, it’s profoundly untrue for others. There are real things that cause unhappiness: illness, oppression, violence, discrimination, and poverty to name just a few. The children in cages at the US border didn’t get there because they didn’t adequately “raise their vibe”. This type of thinking not only represents spiritual bypassing, it’s also a form of dehumanization.
Healthy positive thinking practices:
Here are a few positive thinking practices that might not “manifest” the Insta-life you’ve been dreaming of but, with practice, may make you feel a bit better.
Gratitude on the regular — making a point to practice gratitude on a regular basis can improve our sense of well-being. Whether it’s taking a few moments each morning or keeping a gratitude journal before bed, making this a habit can be powerful. The important thing is to FEEL the sense of gratitude — this means coming up with things that actually make you feel good, not the things that you think you “should” be grateful for.
Being generous — giving people the benefit of the doubt not only makes your interactions more pleasant, it also frees up time and energy that you might spend replaying conversations or stewing on a perceived slight or injustice. When we start with the assumption that people are doing the best they can, it allows us to have more clarity about relationships and situations. Brené Brown’s research also tells us that people who practice being generous in their assumptions tend to be both happier and more likely to be generous with (and less hard on) themselves.
Broadening your perspective — sometimes we can find ourselves getting stressed, upset or angry in a way that feels out of proportion to the situation at hand. While it’s important to process our emotions, we might also have an opportunity to think about how much our current circumstances really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ask yourself: Will I even care about this in an hour? How about a week? If the answer is no, maybe take a note from Elsa and just let it go.
Practicing self-compassion — being kind to yourself is powerful but it is something that doesn’t come easily to many of us. Visit Kristin Neff’s site to assess your self-compassion and learn practices for treating yourself like the beautiful human you are.
Originally published on Kind Over Matter