When I first dived into the world of self improvement I fell in love with positivity mantras and motivation quotes. I had them hanging up in my office, in my bathrooms and I even had them popping up as reminders on my phone. But quickly I started to feel bad when I read them. My stomach would drop when my phone reminded me “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” because I felt bad that I was still worrying. That is when I found toxic positivity. So what is toxic positivity and why does it make us feel so bad? When does positivity become toxic positivity?
When I sat down to research for this blog post and podcast episode I realised just how gigantic this problem is. I initially came across this issue when I followed certain hashtags on Instagram. Mainly to do with weight loss, self improvement and self sabotage. Following these communities is important to me because this is where my work is and where I want to make changes in the world. I also relied on them heavily for my own personal development and professional growth.
I wanted to be surrounded by positivity, to be inspired daily to stick to my healthy eating and exercise goals. Oh to be one of the ones who wake up ready to “smash” my to-do list and “hustle” my way to financial security through my work. That is the dream! All I had to do was think happier thoughts and try harder. I had signed up for emails from mentors and gurus but every one that pinged into my inbox was telling me yet another thing I was doing wrong.
Toxic positivity anxiety
I realised that something was wrong when I started to get anxious looking at #entrepreneur or #selfsabotage quotes on Instagram. So I unfollowed many of the hashtags that I had once followed for motivation. But the anxiety didn’t go away. It got worse. I remember listening to a podcast on marketing and needing to lie on the floor because I felt so overwhelmed by the list of things I was doing wrong and how badly I was running my business.
I made a crazy list of all of the things I should be doing every day for health, for personal growth and for business building and it was 25 things. It would take all my time to get through the list. I wondered where I was going to get the time to do all of these things whilst spending time with my family, getting some down time or going out to see friends. This self improvement list would be a full time job and nobody was going to pay me to do that!
Toxic positivity breakthrough
I didn’t go to University straight from school so one thing I really missed out on was learning how to think critically. I believe we should start teaching children critical thinking skills as soon as they are able to grasp the concept. Through my self development work I learned how to think critically and assess things from a perspective that didn’t involve feelings. I realised that what I was experiencing was toxic positivity because the message itself made me feel worse. Let me explain.
I can teach you how
One of the things I teach in my programs is how to get over your self limiting beliefs. It’s vital to challenge any long held beliefs in order to understand whether there is any truth in them or whether they are baseless. To do this you have to critically assess the belief. Ask yourself questions like “where did this come from?” or “how does this person benefit from making me feel bad?”. The skill of taking what is said about you or to you and deciding whether there is any truth to it or benefit from it is vital to building a healthy mindset and self confidence. I turned this skill to the positivity quotes and motivation mantras I had surrounded myself with.
Not happy? Try Harder!
That was basically the message I was given as toxic positivity. Still stressed? Well you’re not trying hard enough. It’s your own fault that you are still not happy 24/7. The beautifully packaged quotes, motivation mantras and photos (usually heavily edited)
showing people who had tried hard enough and were reaping the rewards just made me feel utterly horrendous.
Why didn’t these mantas and quotes make me feel better? Why couldn’t I be one of the ones who wakes up with a smile on her face, jumps up full of enthusiasm and bounces off into the world to smash everything? It made me feel guilty and embarrassed that I just couldn’t seem to get myself together. I just couldn’t make myself feel happier, more motivated, less afraid, less overwhelmed and less inferior.
You are validated
Toxic positivity is harmful because it invalidates, minimises and diminishes your feelings. It’s perfectly normal to have negative thoughts and feelings every day. Nobody is happy all day, every day. That is why toxic positivity is so toxic! It feeds us a lie that we are failing if we don’t feel happy all day every day. If we aren’t a bundle of energy ready to take on the world. It’s a lie. A lie that makes us feel really crap about ourselves and has the complete opposite effect that what we set out to do in the first place.
Skip the #happiness
Here is my advice. Skip the hashtags that make you feel bad. Unfollow accounts on social media that leave you feeling unworthy or unaccomplished. Skip the influencers that tell you that you aren’t trying hard enough. Look for the stories and accounts that encourage you to look straight into the face of negative feelings. Ones that actually deal with them. Toxic positivity encourages damaging behaviour like ignoring bad feelings. It forces you dismiss your negative experiences, hiding and not dealing with feelings and ignoring your problems.
Toxic positivity is saying “don’t be so negative” instead of “yes, this is a tough moment but I will get through it with some help from my friends”. Or “it could be worse” instead of “sometimes I will experience bad things but not everything is bad and I can get through it”. The difference is subtle but powerful. Try it yourself and see how many toxic positivity sayings you have in your vernacular. Use the graphic below to remind yourself of better ways to deal with negative feelings. Pin it to your self development pinterest board. Print it out and hang it where you can see it every day.
Listen to the podcast for more on toxic positivity and remember that you don’t need to give yourself a hard time if you have been involved in, or a been a victim of, toxic positivity. It looks shiny and glossy from the outside so it’s easy to fall into the trap. I encourage you to think critically about the positivity quotes and motivational mantras you come across. Take what is helpful and discard the rest!