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Happy lang? How toxic positivity can take a toll on your mental health and what to do about it

By AYIE LICSI Published Jan 09, 2023 7:46 pm Updated Jan 10, 2023 10:44 am

Remember how in the Pixar movie Inside Out, the vivacious Joy wanted Riley to have nothing but happy core memories? When the 11-year-old finally had a sad core memory after her family moved to a new state, Joy did everything she could to get rid of it and make sure Sadness doesn't take over.

In a nutshell, that's kind of what toxic positivity is. 

The term generated buzz again after Donnalyn Bartolome made comments about how she was seeing a lot of people feeling sad that they have to go back to work after the holidays. The social media personality told these netizens to be grateful about having a job instead, prompting users to call her out on her toxic positivity.

What is toxic positivity?

For those who aren't familiar with toxic positivity, it's when people are told to maintain a positive mindset no matter how dire or difficult a situation is. It's different from being optimistic because it denies the true human experience of facing struggles, independent clinical psychologist Riyan Portuguez (@yourmillennialpsychologist on TikTok) told PhilStar Life.

"It’s the denial and rejection of negative human experience when you face struggles. Yung rejection na 'yon, yung feeling na 'yon, toxic positivity siya. Kaya siya tinawag na toxic kasi harmful siya kasi it doesn’t help to develop the resilience and genuine optimism," she said.

"Ang hindi nare-realize ng mga tao, yung pag-deny mo ng isang bagay, may kapalit siya."

Portuguez added that toxic positivity has somehow been ingrained in our upbringing, sharing how as toddlers, we've always been hushed when we start crying.

"Noong bata pa tayo, kapag kunwari umiyak ka, papatahanin ka agad. ‘Wag ka umiyak.’ Pero dapat hayaan umiyak yung bata kasi nasaktan siya. Eh anong masama pag umiyak siya?"

But when people come out with words that seem optimistic from their end but toxic for others, it's often times unintentional. You have to watch out for what else a person says next, their tone, their delivery, and speech to spot if it's toxic positivity or not, the psychologist added.

Toxic positivity can come in many forms like when someone tells you to "look on the bright side" after something horrible happens" or when, as you're opening up to someone about something heavy you're carrying on your shoulders, they tell you "others have it worse."

It's not all sunshine and rainbows

While it sounds like an internet-made-up term, toxic positivity can actually cause harm to others—physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Physically happens when a person feels so down and invalidated that they can't bring themselves to work or even get up out of bed, Portuguez said.

We are not designed to be happy all the time.

"[Toxic positivity] affects your self-worth, self-efficacy, demotivates a person, and worsens someone’s mental health conditions," she continued. "Usually sa may mga mental health problems, mahalaga yung emotional and social support. Malaking process nun para mag-heal ang mga ito."

"Even in therapy sessions, ang nakakatulong para mag-heal ang patient, yung mismong trusting na relationship. Imagine if your therapist invalidates your feelings, 'di ka gagaling—ganun siya ka-powerful na may psychological and physical impact."

Embracing all of your emotions

By the end of Inside Out, Joy learns that Riley needed Sadness, especially when the young girl was getting overwhelmed. Then, all of Riley's bright, happy core memories from her past home transformed into ones with both joy and sadness in them.

And just like the movie, we must feel all of our emotions and not just hop into the happy, positive ones to cope.

"There’s no such thing as bad emotions, even though ang pangalan niya ay negative. These were just classified as such pero 'di sinasabi na bad [ang mga 'to]," Portuguez shared, adding that the most important part of being emotionally dealing with what these emotions mean to you.

"Emotions are postive when they give you a sense of comfort, meanwhile negative ones give you discomfort. Ang point noon ay ano ang ibig sabihin ng emotions sa’yo. Ang galit and all those emotions, may meaning siya sa person dapat lang mataas ang awareness niya, pero dahil nga focus lang tayo sa positive, bulag tayo doon."

Emotional awareness is a skill that takes patience and practice and most importantly, can be learned. It can be developed by learning how to get in touch with difficult emotions so you can remain in control whenever you're dealing with uncomfortable feelings.

"We are not designed to be happy all the time. When we study human emotions, may five primary emotions tayo—disgust, sadness, fear, anger, joy, minsan sa ibang articles kasama rin yung love. The mere fact that our primary emotions include anger, sadness, and fear means feeling these are normal."

How to avoid being a source of toxic positivity

Portuguez also told L!fe some tips on how you can make sure you yourself aren't sharing toxic positivity with others:

  • Learn to actively listen. "Respond based on the needs of the person."
  • Allow the person to honor their emotions. "Di naman porket nag-express ka ng 'ayaw ko pumasok sa trabaho' or 'napapagod ako' ay equivalent na noon, 'di ka grateful."
  • Practice compassion. "Compassion is when you practice kindness and struggle with the person, 'yong talagang ramdam niya na andiyan ka."
  • Don't invalidate feelings.
  • Allow the person to look for coping mechanisms that work for them.
  • Be there for them as emotional and social support. "Malaking tulong maka-boost ng emotional well-being ng person kung may quality care from their friends and loved ones."