January 4, 2024

Why Positivity Becomes Toxic & What You Can Do Instead.


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Something that has been a near-constant barrier I have seen in the lives of many people is the idea that we just have to be positive, and everything will be okay.

I understand that for many people, this is an ingrained message they have had throughout their lives.

I have had many times when I was having a difficult time, and this was the advice given.

First, I would like to thank people who did tell me this because I know they honestly thought it would help. Although it didn’t, I genuinely believe it was meant with the purest intentions from those who did tell me this.

As someone who has to see what they do with doing their best, I will never discard or feel that others doing their best to help did not matter or make a difference. The trouble is that being, staying, or feeling like we always have to be positive is shortsighted compared to what can really help.

Here’s why:

Life is full of many experiences, which make it complex. We don’t live in a one-dimensional world that requires a single approach to everything. The idea that we have to be positive all the time would work in a boxed-in world. We as humans tend to think inside of a box, so feeling like this approach would work makes sense from that standpoint. Life is not that way, though, no matter how hard we try to make it that way.

Does positivity have its space, and should we learn to recognize it? Of course, we should, but it is not the end-all, be-all for problem solvers. To even start to see the positive, we also have to know the negative, so in the end, it can’t be the only solution to problems. It really can make a difference in the correct place, but try to use it in the wrong one, and the impact can be like poison.

Something that I see a lot of people do or say is they don’t like to focus on the negative. As a counselor, I can see how this could work from a certain lens, like strengths-based, solution-focused, and cognitive aspects. I truly believe using these lenses can be helpful, but if it is at the denial and the dismissing of how other things have impacted a person, it is shortsighted and fails to really help them.

In my mind, it overlooks the crucial trauma-informed care approach that is being emphasized so much in therapy these days. It also would place the things people went through as being only an issue of the past when the truth is that many things people really struggle with today have to do with the fact that those things from the past become real in the present for them physically. We don’t have to know where a trigger comes from for it to cause a severe reaction in us, so thinking we can only believe or stay positive discredits much of the current research on how trauma impacts us in our bodies.

I will never forget the point when I found that this would not cut it for me with my trauma and depression. My life has changed dramatically from the life I was raised in.

About 10 years ago, I began to show the signs of what I had gone through. Years of nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, and sleepless nights started to catch up with me, and I developed depression and anxiety that felt like the world was crushing me.

This was long after anything I felt should be impacting me. But every day, I just felt more and more like garbage. Despite what I had been through, my life was excellent, and I did not feel great. A well-intended friend pointed out I had no reason to be depressed. In other words, things were positive, so why didn’t my feelings reflect this? This was even before I knew what the word “anxious” even was, and I felt even worse at the shame and guilt that I could not be positive about this, no matter how hard I tried.

Well, the years went on, and I discovered my depression, anxiety, and PTSD were natural and normal things based on what I had gone through previously. I still regularly have the thought that everything is good and I have no reason to be depressed. This thought does not help me because trying to see the positive when in a negative mood does not seem to work for me or many others. This is why positivity becomes such a toxic thing for me (and I believe others). I do have a way of changing this experience through learning to be grateful.

I wrote previously about how gratitude has helped me through a significant loss. In fact, I just hit the anniversary of this, and a day taken to remember the things I am grateful for went a long way. When breaking things down, we can practice gratitude no matter the circumstances. It is truly a strength and practice we can use daily that does help. A case in point would be the gratitude I can feel that despite it not working, I did have someone in my life who cared enough to try and help.

As someone who has worked with people who have no one, I can recognize how good it was to have someone at that time. In fact, I have a lot of people who care for me and love me deeply. Does that take away my depression? Of course, it doesn’t, and I’m convinced nothing ever will get rid of it. I can be grateful that it no longer confuses and depresses me further. I can also be thankful that despite having depression, it does not impair my function anymore like it once did.

Another example I can use that positivity would never work in is the trauma of the life I lived until I was 21. I can never say it was positive that I was raised in such circumstances, but I can be grateful that it gives me perspective into the lives of the people I help daily as a social worker. Nothing about what they endure daily is positive, but helping them maybe find some things they still have and where that can take them can make a huge difference. Gratitude works regarding the many aspects that the world brings our way.

I’m grateful you read this and hope it helps.


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