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Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Movement

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

I believe in the power of positivity, in fact, the way you wire it is the way your brain will fire it and so thinking positive can help your brain become more positive.

However, any attempt to escape the negative will ultimately result in its amplification.

In short: What you resist will persist.

And that requires that we understand WHAT symptoms are.

Today is all about toxic positivity. If you’re tired of people telling you to “manifest” your joy, to “just look at the bright side,” or if you’ve fallen victim to the positive psychology movement telling you to ignore your anxious, depressed, and negative thoughts causing you to feel more anxious, depressed and negative, then this message is for you.

First, let’s talk about what toxic positivity is and what toxic positivity is NOT.

Toxic positivity is a strategy used to suppress, cover-up, or otherwise silence your valid human experience.

Toxic positivity is like hitting the mute button on a crying baby, or shutting off the fire alarm when your house is burning to the ground.

Humans are designed to feel, and this includes the full spectrum of emotions. From anger to terror, from sadness to joy. As a fetus in the womb, as your brain developed an amygdala and a limbic system, you began to feel.

Let’s pause for a moment and I want us to do a quick self-assessment. Ask yourself: Do I struggle with toxic positivity? Or am I receiving messages about toxic positivity from my environment?

The top 10 indicators of toxic positivity:

  1. You are hiding, masking, or bypassing your true feelings.
  2. You do not feel you have permission to feel negative feelings
  3. You identify as a stuffer or suppressor of your emotions.
  4. You feel like you spent a lot of your time trying to force yourself to “be positive”
  5. You feel guilty for feeling sad, anxious, angry, or any emotion other than happiness or positivity.
  6. You are uncomfortable around others when they express negativity and try to avoid or distract away from those feelings.
  7. The narrative in your environment is filled with sayings like: “It could be worse,” or “others have it worse than you do,” or “you’re choosing to be negative,” or “you need to focus on manifesting joy.”
  8. When you start to experience a negative emotion, you notice yourself becoming dissociated or distanced from your body or the environment around you.
  9. You hide behind a mask of positive feelings, put on your “rose-colored sunglasses” and do not acknowledge the other feelings you may be experiencing.
  10. You scold others and yourself for a lack of positivity.

Why Is It So Problematic?

There are 3 key reasons:

  1. It leads to shame: According to Brene Brown, “where there is hiding, secrets, and denial, shame is usually in the driver’s seat.” Here is how you might assess if there is shame around your true experience… Ask yourself: “If _______knew _____ about me, what would they think?” “Something I would never want the world to know about me is _______.” How would you fill in those blanks? That is where shame is found.
  2. Suppression is harmful to the body: When we suppress an emotion, it does not actually “go away,” it simply relocates. Let me tell you a story. Years ago, I had a friend who had a really good idea. It took him months, but finally, he mustered up the courage to bring his idea to his boss. He stood in his boss’ office and bravely shared his idea and his boss simply responded saying, “That’s a stupid suggestion, leave my office.” My friend felt a surge of embarrassment, disappointment, and anger, but stuffed it all down inside. He went back to his office and developed a raging migraine that lasted days. Just like my friend’s emotions were valid, so are yours. And while exploding all over his boss might not have been the solution to his suffering, stuffing, and ignoring wasn’t either.
  3. What we deny will amplify: You cannot solve a problem you are unwilling to have. That is why the first step of the Act Method is to ACKNOWLEDGE. By acknowledging your anxiety, or anger, frustration, or sadness, you have the opportunity to understand WHY you feel that way and to do something about it. Instead of ignoring it, or adding more post-it notes with positive affirmations all over your bathroom mirror.

What You Can Do

So let’s talk about what you can do instead of being sprinkling sugary sweet thoughts all over the place, or as the old saying goes, “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Step 1: You ACKNOWLEDGE what you’re feeling. Let’s use the example of anxiety. Simply say to your anxiety: “I hear you; I see you, what do you need me to know?”

Step 2: Identify the CHARACTERS or factors that are contributing to your feelings. These characters may be parts of yourself that feel insecure, or anxious, and making friends with your different parts will help them to align with you and trust you to live your life without them getting in the way in the form of anxiety attacks or depression. Another type of character that may be impacting your wellbeing is the social characters. Like in the case of my friend, who was embarrassed and disrespected by his boss. My friend’s feelings were valid and doing an audit of our relationships and how we manage interactions and our emotional responses can go a long way towards being free from your symptoms. We also have biological characters, these are the hormones, neurotransmitters, medications, and other physical variables that affect our health. Remember, your symptoms are your body’s attempts at helping you to heal. Instead of forcing yourself to be positive, talk with a trusted counselor or doctor about how you’re feeling and make sure that you are taking care of your body, too.

Step 3: The third part of the ACT Method is the Tools for Transformation. Today I want to teach you how to shift from toxic positivity to honoring-healing statements.

Here are some examples of non-toxic and honoring-healing statements:

Toxic PositivityHonoring Healing Statement
Manifest your joy!I accept how I feel, and I am working towards feeling more joy.
Anxiety is not an option.Anxiety is a message from my mind and body so that I can heal, and I’m listening
Be positive!Whatever I am feeling, I accept myself.
I am a drag by being so negative all the time.I can love and accept myself, no matter what I am going through.
Delete negativityEverybody suffers, I am not alone.
Focus on the positive.I acknowledge the entire spectrum of what I am feeling.
It could be worse, others have it worse.My feelings are valid.
Everything will work out in the end.What I am going through is really hard, I am worthy of time and patience in this time.
Conceal, don’t feel.I can authentically feel and share my feelings with those who I trust.
People won’t like me if I’m negative.I authentically accept my friends and I authentically accept myself.

Healing comes from truly showing up for ourselves and others in an authentic way. While our brains are impacted by how we think and feel, it is always important to ACKNOWLEDGE how we feel so that we have the opportunity to seek true transformation. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a vicious cycle of symptom, suppression, symptom, suppression.

Remember, if you are being influenced by toxic positivity, that it might be time to do an audit of your Cast of Characters. Take a look at your social media page, are there any channels that you might need to unfollow for a little while? What about your friendships and relationships? Is it time to have a conversation about toxic positivity, and to do a pivot on how you are supporting and encouraging each other? We can dive in even further into your cast of characters in the Anxiety Breakthrough Program!

When you experience negative emotions, journal about them, talk with a friend or counselor. Embracing the full spectrum of your human experience will set the stage for being fully alive.

With love,

Dr. Nicole

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first. Dr. Nicole Cain consults with clients locally and internationally. Dr. Nicole Cain ND MA has helped countless people take back control of their lives, and she can help you. To set up a complimentary consultation, call our office or visit https://drnicolecain.com/getting-started to schedule online.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.