Toxic Positivity: Too Much Optimism Can Be Worse Than Sadness

Toxic positivity

It is a message that resonates deeply in society, especially since a few decades ago Martin Seligman popularized the term “positive psychology.” Many people took that optimistic discourse and promoted it (with the best intentions in the world, I don’t deny it).

Now, some professionals, authors and companies have abused this optimistic discourse, in some cases to counterproductive extremes.

Toxic positivity: being too optimistic is also harmful

Motivational speeches and phrases like “you can do anything,” “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” or “everything is possible if you believe in yourself” are easily assimilated by the masses (regardless of whether results improve). or not), are messages very well received by anyone.

However, Sometimes the path to mental health involves validating all our emotions (whether they are more or less unpleasant), and not deny human pain by forcing a false joy that is sometimes not genuine.

And big brands have known this for a long time: People are more likely to buy anything if it makes them smile, even if it is not necessary..

The commodification of happiness

Extreme optimism encourages impulsive buying and consumerism.

And that is the basis of the market for self-help books, many pseudosciences and the merchandising of mugs and t-shirts with well-intentioned phrases such as: smile, it is the solution to all your problems (but it is not always). It is a cheap and accessible anesthetic, and sometimes it is just another product.

In addition to looking harmless, it is very accessible: In many cases it ensures a small immediate mood boost (a behavioral reinforcement), even though it rarely improves our lives in the long term, beyond the mere placebo effect.

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Social pressure to hide problems

Some people can become “stuck” with motivational phrases, quotes from famous people, authentic dogmas such as “it is forbidden to give up”, which they not only try to apply to themselves (regardless of their specific situation or individual context), but also put pressure on other people. around them so that they get on the bandwagon of their new mentality.

And it is that external pressure can be very strong and sometimes err on the side of tactpromoting unempathetic reactions to the suffering of others: “you are not trying hard enough”, “you have to believe in yourself”, “cheer up, strong people always rise up”.

And with that tactless speech, you can put other people in a very difficult dilemma: either you follow me, or you are a weak person. “Being happy is very easy, and if you are not achieving it right away, it is because you are doing it wrong”

Also implicit in the doctrine of “all your happiness depends on you” is the message “all your suffering depends on you.”. The logical conclusion is that if I suffer it is my fault.

With this philosophy of life, many people forget that context matters, and not all people can achieve the same goals using the same methods.

Deny suffering or obstacles

The discourse of extreme positivity forces people to put on rose-colored glasses with which they only see part of reality: the sweetest part, that of the victories, the learning, the gains, the joy. At the same time, it denies the “ugly” part of reality: not so pleasant emotions, such as sadness, anger or fear.

In a very unscientific way, they are labeled as “negative emotions,” and the message is implicit that they are “bad emotions,” and that we should avoid feeling them, because they are always bad for us.

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This approach (almost sectarian in some cases) creates an alternative reality in people’s minds, where there are no problems or obstaclesand where willpower and desire are the only thing one needs to succeed in life and achieve everything you set your mind to.

In this false omnipotence, one forgets that suffering is just another part of life, and that less pleasant emotions also have an evolutionary function, and that recognizing and expressing them is essential for our survival and our mental health.

Because, no matter how much one puts on “happy glasses,” the problems and obstacles will still be there, and if we deny and exclude emotions like fear, we will not be able to make sensible decisions to protect ourselves or take precautions against real risks and dangers of the life.

The infantilization of life

In this biased vision of life taken to extremes, a person can become very infantilized.

She denies herself the opportunity to confront problems in a mature adult way: to accept difficulties and frustration, to endure pain with dignity, and to mobilize our resources toward improvement. In an optimistic way, of course, but realistic, and not forgetting that To overcome many difficulties we will need some strategy.

And a very bitter truth for many people: things are not always going to turn out the way we would like, due to not having the necessary resources, or simply due to bad fortune.

Desire is not always everything, context matters. Simply put, not everyone can be an astronaut, and that has nothing wrong nor does it take away the meaning of life.

Lack of empathy: forced smiles

Sadly, when some people encounter a misfortune or bitter event (an illness, a financial failure, the death of a loved one), Sometimes people indoctrinated by toxic positivity appear and start firing off motivational phrases. of conferences or books, as if they were programmed robots.

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It is not pleasant to see other people suffer, and sometimes we can tend to force the other person to be happy right away, because it seems bad to us that they suffer.

Again, there are very good intentions, but many times it is best to help the person validate their emotions and give them the space they need. The person will improve as he integrates the experience, but at his pace, not at ours.

Absolute and indoctrinating messages

It is easy to recognize many of these messages. They are absolute, polarized, they speak in terms of all or nothingtrying to describe reality in statements sculpted in stone, without admitting nuances or shades of gray.

The imperative formulation is repeated a lot, as if it were an order, and the dangerous “you should” and “you have to”, transforming mere opinions into absolute commands, such as: “you have to be strong.”

This ideology is closely associated with values ​​such as freedom, however it does not usually leave much room for choice.

Don’t smile if you don’t want to

Nothing is black and white. Of course it is important to put optimism in our lives to move forward, to have hope, to believe in ourselves and in our abilities and resources.

It is equally important to recognize that we are not omnipotent.many things will cost us more or less, sometimes the smartest option will be to withdraw in time and try again next time with a better strategy, or even completely discard an overly ambitious idea.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad, angry, or scared sometimes. In certain circumstances, it is simply the most adaptive and healthy thing to do.

On many occasions, expressed in their proper measure, these emotions can save our lives. (as they have been doing for thousands of years, since the first Homo sapiens They ran around the plains).

There are worlds away between these basic, natural emotions and a depressive, anxious or pathological anger disorder.

Psychologist in Valencia or online therapy

Luis Miguel Real

I offer psychotherapy services in my office in Valencia, as well as online therapy sessions. You can see my contact information on this page.