How to Deal with 'Toxic Positivity' In Your Relationships
"Positive vibes only" can actually be counterproductive to our mental health.
DEAR DR. JENN,
Like most people, I've been going through a tough time since the pandemic hit. I got laid off from my job and my dad is very ill (not to mention the stress of the presidential election, racial injustice, and the country literally on fire). I'm at a low point and I really need the support of my friends and girlfriend right now, but I've been noticing a frustrating trend. Every time I want to unload my feelings of sadness or anxiety I'm told, “look on the bright side,” “everything will be fine,” "everything happens for a reason," or "you just need to stay positive." I know their intentions are good, but it leaves me feeling alone and unsupported. How do I get them to see that sometimes, I just need permission to feel my negative emotions? —Negative Nelly
There is a time and a place for everything and it sounds like you need the room to grieve the loss of your job and vent about your concerns for your dad. In order to heal, we need to be able to process our pain.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the power of positive thought. Studies show that a positive approach can reduce anxiety (which it sounds like you are experiencing), is linked to success, and even a healthier, longer life. That said, it is really important to be able to talk about your feelings, get support, and vent in order to move forward in your healing process. And sometimes that isn’t pretty.
I think a lot of people feel pressure to be overly positive. I call it toxic positivity. I can’t tell you how many times, especially this year, I have heard therapy clients tell me they are worried about talking about how they are feeling because they don’t want to be “too heavy,” “be a burden,” or upset people in their support system. When you are feeling down and vulnerable, the last thing you want to do is alienate the people who you depend on for support. That is understandable.
But you need to be able to be honest and authentic about where you are emotionally. When we deny our emotions, they always come back to bite us in the ass. They leak out at the worst times or we become short-tempered and hurt the feelings of those near us.
Not everyone is fluent or comfortable in the language of feelings, especially negative ones. It's important to figure out which friends are up for the task of talking truth and can walk in the dark side with you. Make sure that you lean on those friends. With the other ones, you may want to have a conversation letting them know that your negative state is not going to be forever and that you just need some room to talk through your struggles. Some of them may rise to the occasion and be really happy to be there for you. Others may be less capable.
When it comes to your girlfriend, sit her down and let her know (in a kind way) that her attempts to cheer you up are making you feel worse. Let her know that you want her to listen and legitimize your feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety about your situation — rather than diminishing them by always turning the conversation to the positive. If she loves you, she'll make an effort to meet you where you are to make you feel seen and supported.
Given that you are getting this feedback from so many friends, you may want to consider therapy. Therapists have a very high tolerance for negative feelings and can expedite the healing process. A good therapist can help you walk that line of getting all the negative feelings out, but also develop new skills to help you grieve and learn new, more beneficial, ways to think about things. You mentioned that you are out of work right now. There are low fee mental health clinics all around this country that are seeing people (mostly using telemedicine now) that will see you based on your ability to pay. All you need to do is Google mental health clinics in your area.
Bottom line: It's okay to not be okay, and you deserve support. Having people you can be honest with and talk to about your truth and your pain will help you get through this tough time faster.