Toxic positivity refers to the belief that people should maintain a positive mindset in the face of any adverse situation, no matter how bad that is. While a positive attitude can go a long way in terms of coping with difficult situations and generally having a good life, taking this attitude to the extreme leads to the toxic aspect of this mindset.
But why is it harmful? After all, more positivity should mean more benefits, no? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Toxic positivity encourages people to suppress all of their negative emotions all the time and “think only positive vibes”. Emotion suppression is one of two emotion regulation strategies (the other one being reappraisal, i.e. reframing your thoughts in a healthier manner). To give you an example, someone might be upset that they lost their job and they might say they feel like a loser. In a suppression framework, this person would be encouraged to forget their sadness and think about the situation as “a blessing in disguise”. On the other hand, in a reappraisal framework, they would be allowed to acknowledge their sadness and could reframe their thoughts as “although I have lost this job, my fundamental qualities haven’t disappeared”.
Unfortunately, suppression is not generally useful in reducing emotion intensity and some studies even show that it is excessively used in mood disorders, such as depression. Studies suggest that emotion suppression is disproportionately used by depressed individuals as a strategy for hiding their negative emotions. While effective in preventing these emotions from being externalized, suppression, unlike reappraisal, leads to no reduction in the intensity of negative feelings. Furthermore, people who engage more frequently in suppression have generally poorer outcomes following cognitive behavioural therapy. And emotion suppression, but not reappraisal, leads to increased binge eating in those who suffer from binge eating disorder.
Finally, it goes without saying that constantly putting down people for expressing their feelings makes them feel rejected, lonely, and even misunderstood. In the long run, it also makes them less and less likely to open up, thus promoting the emotion suppression behaviour and exacerbating its negative effects. So next time you or someone you know bottles up their less pleasant feelings, remember it’s healthier to let them out, even though it might be uncomfortable in the moment.
Ehring, T., Tuschen-Caffier, B., Schnülle, J., Fischer, S., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation and vulnerability to depression: spontaneous versus instructed use of emotion suppression and reappraisal. Emotion, 10(4), 563.
Scherer, A., Boecker, M., Pawelzik, M., Gauggel, S., & Forkmann, T. (2017). Emotion suppression, not reappraisal, predicts psychotherapy outcome. Psychotherapy Research, 27(2), 143-153.
Svaldi, J., Caffier, D., & Tuschen-Caffier, B. (2010). Emotion suppression but not reappraisal increases desire to binge in women with binge eating disorder. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 79(3), 188-190.
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