Toxic Positivity Is the Mental Health Concern You Should Be Aware of Now More Than Ever
Due to the coronavirus, many couples have postponed their weddings or re-imagined their nuptials into celebrating with a minimony, a virtual ceremony or an elopement. The change in plans (not to mention the pandemic itself) has couples dealing with anxiety, stress and even depression. But a new mental health concern is beginning to rise among to-be-weds: toxic positivity. While positivity is generally a good thing, too much of anything (even optimism) can be harmful with how it relates to yourself and others.
"Toxic positivity involves solely viewing things in a positive light across all situations—no matter the circumstances—without regard toward how that viewpoint might make others feel," says Landis Bejar, licensed mental health counselor and founder of wedding planning therapy practice AisleTalk.
If you're upset about COVID-19 changing your wedding plans, it's OK to admit it. True, you still have your partner and you will have a wedding, but only focusing on the bright side of things can be, well, toxic. Not acknowledging your negative thoughts (or being around people who don't allow you to do so) is emotionally exhausting and can harm your mental wellbeing. Yes, it's important to stay grateful. But equally important is taking time to process your negative emotions.
It's completely valid to feel like things are hard right now, especially as it relates to your wedding, perhaps your relationship, and other factors such as mental and physical health. In fact, it's encouraged to admit things are challenging during this time. "Feeling the full range of human emotions is healthy, necessary, and allows us to actually experience the good ones even more so," says Sarah Stukas, master of science, licensed clinical professional counselor, and therapist at Life Insight. "Toxic positivity doesn't allow for that fullness of feelings."
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity might initially sound like an oxymoron. After all, how can a positive mindset be bad? "Whenever you hear the word 'toxic,' it's usually referring to the too-much-of-any-one-thing-can-be-bad phenomenon," Bejar says.
Even though the intention behind toxic positivity might be to cheer someone up, it misses the mark because it lacks empathy. "Instead of meeting the other person where they are and validating what they're feeling, toxic positivity tries to leap over the negative and offer a positive perspective," says Jean Fitzpatrick, licensed psychoanalyst, relationship therapist and premarital counselor in New York. "When you do that, the other person gets the message that their feelings are unacceptable."
Toxic positivity can come from other people as well as ourselves, Stukas adds. "When it comes from ourselves, it may be that the reality of the situation is just too painful, so we put a positive spin on it to make it more palatable," she explains. "When it comes from other people, it may be because our emotions trigger their own sense of helplessness or sadness." Either way, being positive without properly processing circumstances at large can end up doing more harm than good.
How Toxic Positivity Impacts To-Be-Weds Amid COVID
While a postponed or downsized wedding certainly isn't the worst thing to happen in a pandemic, it's completely valid for couples to be upset about the change in plans. "It is a normal reaction to be sad or even devastated and to want to share that emotional experience with friends, family and your partner," Stukas says. "If we're not allowed to express or feel those negative emotions, we end up feeling even worse because we're closing off a portion of our reality."
Couples might face toxic positivity from friends and family who respond to any of their problems with a "turn-that-frown-upside-down" approach. "Turning the focus from the couples' plight to other topics, such as: 'At least you're healthy' or… 'At least you don't have to worry about work or being immunocompromised or dying alone,' [are all examples of toxic positivity from loved ones]," Bejar says. "It can also look like a denial of someone's emotional experience, such as, 'Don't be so negative,' or 'It's not that big of a deal, it's just a wedding, and at least you have each other.'"
Picture this: you tearfully tell a friend you have to uninvite 200 guests from your wedding because of COVID and they say, "At least you won't have to pay for such a big reception." That's, in fact, an example of toxic positivity. "A more empathetic approach would be to acknowledge the loss by saying, 'Sorry to hear. I know you've always dreamed of a big wedding with all your family and friends,'" Fitzpatrick explains.
Keep in mind toxic positivity doesn't only come from others; it can also come from within. Rather than sitting in the sadness, anger or hurt, some glaze over those emotionas by assuring themselves immediately that everything happens for a reason. "When we do that, the negative feeling doesn't go away," Fitzpatrick says. "We end up carrying it around like a heavy, shame-filled invisible backpack." But here's the catch: that backpack will eventually open back up, and those feelings will arise later on unexpectedly.
"Ever get randomly angry at simple tasks, miscommunications or little habits of others and later realize you were mad about something bigger from earlier?" Bejar says. "Without processing bigger emotions, partners can bring about arguments rooted in their own unprocessed disappointment, sadness, anger and loss."
In its most aggressive form, toxic positivity can also result in a "gaslighting" effect. "Gaslighting is extreme and chronic invalidation of feelings or telling someone that they are not experiencing what they say they are experiencing, to the point where they cannot even trust their own emotional experience," Bejar explains. If you're experiencing this in any relationships (romantic, familial and/or friendships), seek professional help to learn how to cope.
How to Address Toxic Positivity
Now that you know what toxic positivity is and how it can be harmful to your relationship, you likely want to know how to address it. Here are five tips, straight from the experts.
Recognize When It's Happening
"The biggest way to combat toxic positivity is to be able to recognize it," Bejar says. "Unfortunately, toxic positivity doesn't wear a nametag, and it can sneak up unexpectedly." If you're noticing an overload of "it could be worse" messaging in your life, reflect on where it's coming from. Consider journaling about it or sitting down with your partner to talk it out.
If it's coming from friends or family members, give yourself some space from those voices for the time being. What you need right now is support, so head to the empathetic people in your life who will hear you out. If it's coming from your partner, confront the issue. Talk about how it makes you feel and ask for what you need (empathy, comfort and understanding). If it's coming from yourself, the first big step is to admit it's happening. True, maybe things could be worse. That doesn't make what you're feeling any less valid.
Acknowledge Your Negative Thoughts and Feelings
"Many people wish they could siphon off certain emotions and only keep the ones they like, but unfortunately, we aren't wired for that," Bejar says. "Cutting off an emotion is like trying to keep a beach ball underwater: it's bound to pop up eventually and usually in a different place than you were expecting."
While there are many effective coping mechanisms available to deal with negative thoughts and emotions (meditation and breathing exercises, for example), Fitzpatrick says sometimes you just need to feel bad for a little. "Not all feelings can be exhaled away," she says. "Sometimes a situation just sucks." Sitting in those bad feelings may not be comfortable, but it is necessary in order to process them.
Politely Shut It Down When It Happens
If you're experiencing toxic positivity from other people (a friend, family member or your partner), Rachel Sussman, licensed clinical social worker, therapist and relationship expert, recommends respectfully stating your needs. A response like: "You're absolutely right—it could be worse. But for right now, I feel this is bad, and I want to sit in bad for a while," is a great option, Sussman says. Explain to them that they don't have to feel sad too, they just need to be there for you. "It's important to develop those skills because there might come a time in life where you can't use that 'it could always be worse' strategy," Sussman says.
Lean On Your Partner
It may seem counterintuitive to share your negative emotions with your partner during this time. You might feel self conscious for dampening the mood in light of the pandemic. But Fitzpatrick says confiding in your partner can make things better. "When appropriately shared, negative emotions can be a creative force in the relationship," she says. "They help partners keep it real and stay attuned to each other."
Emotional intimacy is one of the most important aspects of a couple's relationship, and we all want to feel that our partner is there for us in tough times. "When we confide in our partner about something painful and get told to look on the bright side, that feels like a door slamming on our emotional connection," Fitzpatrick says. "If that becomes a pattern, resentment and distancing aren't far behind, and those are really damaging to a relationship." Express how you're feeling to your partner and ask for what you need—whether that's words of affirmation or a comforting hug.
Seek Out Professional Help If Necessary
We all need people in our lives who can support and encourage us during hard times. "Ideally, the person we've chosen to partner with is someone who we can express the breadth of our emotional experience without having to edit," Stukas says.
Still, your loved ones can only do so much. "If they aren't able to hold space for you, talking with a therapist is a good and healthy option," Stukas says. It's a way to create a safe space for yourself, as therapists don't need you to be positive at all. "When we have the opportunity to express and feel all of our emotions without judgement, we're able to take the time needed to process our experience(s)," says the expert. "Through this, we usually wind up feeling better and walking away with an improved perspective."
Wherever you stand in relation to COVID-19, what you're feeling right now is valid—especially for couples who've had to postpone or re-imagine their weddings. "The pandemic is a layer of chronic stress that everyone is being affected by on both day-to-day and big-picture levels," Bejar says. "Talking about your negative emotions doesn't make you a negative person. It makes you human."