I first became aware of the concept of positive attitudes in middle school. I remember it clearly because our whole school had an assembly about it. They had brought in some guy who looked like he was straight out of the military — buzz cut, leathery tanned skin, hardened stance, the whole nine yards. He was there to drill some positivity into us kids.
“PMA,” he called it. “Positive Mental Attitude.” This is the part that stuck out the most. Sure, positive mindset was new to me, but I was shocked that it had already been systematized into textbook precision. It even had its own acronym?? Positivity wasn’t there to improve our lives: It was just another rule we were supposed to follow.
It’s probably no surprise that “PMA” really didn’t sit well with me. Mr. Military probably had the very best of intentions, but for most of us kids, he was preaching to the wrong audience. Standing up there talking with his fists, and making slicing motions through the air, he came across like all the rigidly dogmatic adults that most kids either mock or tune out.
Over the decades (i.e. I’m old), PMA has simmered and resurged from time to time. As the world seems to slide into chaos and tension, we’re experiencing another resurgence of focus on positivity. People are seeking solutions for the negativity and fear that seems to be on the rise. Positive mindset is one of the first things we turn to to help us find some peace and joy. Yet, we have a difficult relationship with positivity.
Why? Partly because we’ve had some bad examples of positivity. People who don’t understand what positivity is and isn’t, can do some serious damage. This article will dive into the truths of positivity so we can add it wisely to our toolbox for a better life. The other part is that positivity isn’t always easy. It isn’t a fix-all for our lives. Since positive mindset doesn’t magically stop all the madness in the world, many people abandon it as worthless.
Well, I’m here to ask you not to give up hope. If you’ve been turned off by others’ PMA, you’re not alone! Despite others’ misuse and abuse of PMA, a positive attitude can still help you find the silver linings in the clouds and maybe even dance in the rain.
Truth #1: Positivity isn’t toxic.
Positivity is a powerful way to train our brains so we can find more joy and peace in life. It reminds us that life is a two-sided coin. We get the good with the bad. It’s all about how you choose to view things. When we’re getting the butt-end of life, it helps to remember that the heads-side is still there. Behind the clouds, the sun IS still shining. People who focus on the negative create a negative experience for themselves. They can become bitter and suffer above and beyond life’s normal strife. Even when the sun comes out, they sit and wait for the clouds.
Those who focus on the positive have a better experience. They make the most of the rainy days, AND the sunny ones. This is empowering because we can adapt with life’s ups and downs. We can live in the moment and appreciate the gift it is.
A positive attitude reminds us we have much to be grateful for. Sure, life may feel like sandpaper against rough wood, or our heart may be dropping out our butts with oh-sh*t moments, but when we stop to really look, we always have many blessings and miracles.
When life is rough, positive mindset reminds us “This too shall pass.” Emotions, circumstances, good and bad moments flow like the weather from one to the next. There’s nothing more helpless or hopeless than feeling like “This is the end.” But even as Nelson Mandela labored away for years in the lime quarry, he never gave up hope. He never gave up purpose. He let each day refine his mind and his soul.
This brings us to the last point I’d like to make about positivity (although there are many). Positive attitudes remind us that life is full of lessons from which we can grow in personal strength, character and wisdom. Though the process can be painful, there is great joy in it as long as we choose not to let life’s harshness make us bitter. How we weather life’s struggles is a true test of character, and positivity helps us bring out our very best. President Mandela suffered much, but rather than being defeated, he used his struggles to help others in truly miraculous ways.
Choosing to focus on the brighter side of life isn’t toxic. It’s a choice. Choosing positive or negative doesn’t make you a better or worse person, necessarily. Though we may not have the same struggles or impact as someone like Nelson Mandela, we each have a decision of what we want to get out of life, for better or worse.
Truth #2: Our emotions aren’t toxic, either.
The pressures and stresses of life are difficult. But that’s why we have difficult emotions — to help us navigate the turbulence of life. Feelings of anger might be letting us know we need to deal with a situation with courage and strength. Sadness lets us know we need to deal with loss. Anxiety lets us know we need to resolve a stressful issue. These aren’t negative or toxic emotions, they’re natural responses to life. It’s up to us to process those emotions in healthy ways, and use them to help overcome life’s obstacles.
How does this relate to Toxic Positivity? Surprisingly, positivity can trigger difficult or painful emotions within us. When we try to focus on the “good,” we may come face-to-face with the “bad.” This doesn’t make positivity toxic, it just makes it…difficult. Sometimes. Mantras are my favorite illustration of this.
For instance, if we have low self self-esteem we might go the Stuart Smalley route of repeating, “I’m good enough, smart enough, and gosh-darn it — people like me.” The first few times we repeat the mantra it feels great. It’s what we truly want to believe. But soon, all the feelings of “I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, and NO one likes me” start popping up. In fact, our inner demons loom ferociously to the forefront of our attention. I’ve had to stop repeating positive mantras at times, simply because they made me feel worse, not better.
Is this toxic positivity?
Not at all! It just means we have some difficult emotions and dysfunctional belief systems to heal. Repeating mantras like, “I’ll get the job, I deserve it! I’m beautiful and sexy,” can stir our greatest feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, or make us feel uglier than ever.
Positivity sounds great at first. Who doesn’t want to see the silver linings, or dance in the rain? To me, these images are somehow bright and empowering in the shadows of life. You may have other, empowering images of positivity. But they don’t change the fact that it is, in fact, raining out. Jumping in the puddles eventually makes us bitterly cold. Are these things bad? Not necessarily. It’s just life being life. Positivity reminds us that when puddle-jumping chills us to the bone, rather than complain, it’s time to go inside and pour the hot cocoa.
Truth #3: Positivity isn’t always easy
I’ve always been grateful for those friends and acquaintances who could make me laugh when I didn’t feel like it. When I’m feeling down, it’s nice having someone who can point out the positive, or maybe even just listen. A listening ear reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad sometimes. It’s amazing how validating and healing that can be.
True happiness means not relying on someone as an emotional crutch. We have to learn how to point out the positive ourselves. Ultimately, it’s up to us to turn our frowns upside-down. This truth isn’t easy, however. Sometimes we’re down or angry or anxious because we simply don’t know how to pull ourselves up by our own emotional bootstraps.
Sometimes positivity feels toxic because we have to dive into the struggle. We have to entertain new perspectives, tread into new emotional territory, discard faulty belief systems or dysfunctional life tools. Part of us hates where we are, another part of us doesn’t want to let go. We may find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place with no idea how to really break free.
It can be easy to give up or give in. It can be easy to blame others, or lash out. This only causes a greater wake of destruction and regret. Sometimes positivity is the toughest choice we can make. I’ve met many people who regretted giving up or lashing out. I’ve never met anyone who regretted choosing positivity. What they’ve regretted was waiting so long before finally choosing it.
What is toxic…Really?
“Toxic positivity” stems from things or people posing as positive. Understanding the difference between false and genuine positivity will help you manage toxic individuals in your life as well as refine your own efforts to be genuinely positive. I’ve identified three main culprits for toxic positivity below.
Toxic Culprit #1: Denial
The main culprit for toxic positivity, in my experience, is denial. Too many people think themselves positive when they’re really just living in denial. They try to just be happy, happy, happy! All the time happy, nothing but happy! Happy at the expense of literally everything else. It’s like they have to be happy or else they’ll just die. This may not seem toxic at first, just exhausting.
It’s easy to see that this kind of happiness is forced. Beneath the delicate sheath of positivity, these people are actually unhappy, and emotionally fragile. They may pass themselves off as happy, but the truth is they just can’t deal with difficult emotions. Denial is their primary coping mechanism for life. They try to live like life is a one-sided coin, and like there is nothing wrong in the world. Denying the troubles of the world not only allows them to persist, it allows them to grow. Living in the wake of someone else’s denial can be unbelievably toxic. We often feel like we’re the crazy one.
Ignoring our own difficult emotions and circumstances is toxic. Denying difficult emotions just makes them fester into poison that affects us, and those around us. Positivity absolutely does NOT mean denying the tails-side of life. Positivity doesn’t mean sweeping our difficult emotions or uncomfortable situations under the rug and hope they go away. Positivity means acknowledging both sides of life, honestly, and focusing on the positive. Positivity means finding the solutions rather than complaining about the problem.
Toxic Culprit #2: Imposing
Denial leads to imposing. People who live in forced-positivity often try to force it on others. Denying anything negative in their own lives means denying anything negative in yours. These people say things like, “You shouldn’t say that,” or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “Hate is a strong word…”
It’s toxic when people try to make us feel bad for feeling bad. There’s nothing positive about telling someone they don’t have a right to their emotions. This is just an attempt to control others. Since falsely-positive people can’t manage their own emotions, they also can’t handle yours. By shutting your emotions down, they are trying to avoid being negatively triggered, themselves.
Another form of “imposing” is when people project their negative judgments on you. I learned this lesson the hard way by choosing friends who constantly called me negative when it was really them. I could literally say, “Look, that man is beating his dog!” and they would reply with, “Why do you have to be so negative?!” Never mind that the dog needed help. Throwing me under the bus was their way of wiping their hands clean of an uncomfortable situation. The weird thing — and another part of toxic positivity — is that they used their own false positivity like a feather in their caps so they could see themselves as better than others.
Imposing “positivity” on others doesn’t necessarily make someone bad. Remember Mr. Military? He and the school administrators who hired him probably had the best of intentions. They were trying to teach the important concept of positive mindset. But, did they take the time to ask us kids what was bothering us? Did they ask what fears, insecurities or doubts we might be trying to reconcile? Did they take the time to find out our struggles or suffering we might be dealing with? No. They blindly tried to drill positivity into our brains like the Eleventh Commandment. “Positivity” without love, compassion, kindness or empathy isn’t really positive, it’s toxic. Even if well-intended.
Toxic Culprit #3: Bad Programming
The world is full and overflowing with negative messages. It’s toxic when the world tells us we aren’t beautiful, smart, capable, worthy, or deserving. It’s toxic when society tells us we don’t match up and that we aren’t enough. Telling us we have to look a certain way, act a certain way, think or feel a certain way in order to fit in, is toxic. Bad programming is just denial and imposition on a grand scale. But its impact on us feels very personal. When our brain spits out the bad programming that the world imposed on us, we mistakenly think something is wrong with us.
How does this relate to Toxic Positivity? There’s an implied promise in most of the messages that cut us down. The promise is that if we look just right, act just right, think just right, follow society’s “Formula”, then we’ll be happy and safe. Life will unlock its precious gifts of success, love, and fifteen minutes of fame. More, if we’re extra-good. While these promises seem positive, they lead us down many wrong paths, make us question and doubt ourselves, and guide us into a life and identity that aren’t ours. Society’s punishment of those who don’t conform can be cruel.
These promises of a positive life are toxic because they are false. Society’s formula for happiness only works for a few individuals who luck out. We don’t find happiness by being someone we’re not. We should never have been taught to doubt ourselves just for being born.
My greatest inner demons were imposed upon me by family, community and society. Yet, for some reason, I was left to wrestle these demons on my own. Many of us feel this pain of wrestling some demons of “not good enough, not smart enough, and maybe we are completely alone, in the end.” This is so very toxic. But, in the end there is still hope.
In the end…
True positivity isn’t toxic, it’s wonderful! But, I’m not going to tell you that you should be positive. What I will say is that there are consequences to choosing positivity or negativity. Being positive may not solve all our problems, but it can save us from unnecessary suffering. It empowers us to weather the storms of life with some grace and integrity. Being positive helps us be kind despite others’ cruelty, be patient despite life’s unsurety, and hopeful when all seems lost.
In the end, none of us is truly alone. We’re all in this, together. The aloneness we feel is one of life’s many illusions. The truth is that each of us was created just as we need to be in order to find happiness. Part of life’s journey is discovering who we are and what beautiful gifts we have to share with the world. If we remember to zoom out and view life with a wider lens, then life seems to make more sense. We can find peace in the tumult and embrace the adventure of life.
If you’ve had some bad examples in your life of positivity, you might have some understandably negative judgments about positivity. Don’t let that stop you from exploring true, genuine positivity. Set healthy boundaries for toxic thoughts and people. Be respectful towards others when being positive. Let positivity remind you that it’s a big, glorious, wonderous world out there, filled with possibility. The big question is, What do you want out of life? Focus on that, and go!