“Think positively!” is something we’ve all heard, and while it can be useful to think positive thoughts, where appropriate, there is a side to thinking positively that enters the realm of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is a psychological theory that means ignore negative feelings and cover negative feelings with positive thoughts.
For example, if your pet dies and you feel sad, toxic positivity would say go do something fun so you can feel happy. The reason this is bad advice (and why we call it “toxic”) is that it leaves no room for any negative emotion. When your pet dies, you probably want to feel sad. That’s not something you want to be happy about.
When you try to cover your negative feelings with positive thoughts it 1) resists and avoids negative emotions, and 2) invalidates your experience.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad feelings. There’s nothing wrong with sadness, anger, frustration, irritation, and anxiety.
The problem is that for most of us (myself included) we haven’t been taught how to allow a feeling without reacting to it. You can feel angry and not yell. You can feel irritated and not snap. You can feel anxious and be still. Feelings are for feeling. When we avoid and resist them, they get much bigger and take over.
So many of my clients come to me running from their feelings. Trying to “fix their anxiety” or trying to stop feeling “mom rage.” When you stop trying to fix them and simply allow them, they’re not that big of a deal. Negative feelings are uncomfortable vibrations in your body. That’s it.
Toxic positivity says “never feel bad” and “always be happy.” Which is great if you’re a robot! But of course, you’re a human with a range of emotions, and this is normal.
Instead of “think positively” a better message is “think purposefully.”
Thinking on purpose leaves room for the moments in life when you want to feel scared, down, heartbroken, or upset. If your spouse divorces you and you don’t want that divorce, you likely want to be feeling heartbreak. There are many times in life when you will want to feel negative emotions.
When you think on purpose, you decide from your prefrontal cortex, your highest self, how you want to think and feel. This way you do allow room for negative feelings but you’re not wallowing in them, thinking that life is happening to you.
Thinking on purpose means you’re empowered, choosing who you want to be and how you want to feel—the good, the bad, and the ugly.