These days, our Instagram feeds are filled with influencer posts about spreading positive vibes, never letting negative energy get to you, and brushing off bad experiences. Many of us feel pressured to come across as though we are living our best lives, no matter what is really going on. “Good vibes only!” has become a slogan for our generation. However, unless you live on Pluto, this is entirely unrealistic. This idea is known as toxic positivity and is a dangerous recipe to never growing up or truly learning about yourself.
What is toxic positivity, and how does it relate to spirituality?
Heather Monroe, clinical social worker and director of program development at Newport Institute, says that “toxic positivity is the idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and the positive aspects of life. It is the belief that if we ignore difficult emotions and the parts of our life that are not working as well, we will be much happier.” This is problematic because it oversimplifies how we process emotions. When you attempt to avoid or transcend painful experiences, it can leave you emotionally stunted. Psychologists refer to this as spiritual bypassing.
Whether we like it or not, the ugliest parts of our lives are opportunities for us to grow. Real spiritual growth requires us to be receptive and patient. Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chödrön said, “Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear… are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They’re like messengers that tell us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.” We cannot just dismiss what we go through.
Spiritual growth is the process of awakening yourself to your true purpose and nature. It is about reaching the highest version of yourself. Toxic positivity uses spirituality to avoid, suppress, or escape from certain emotions or situations in life. It convinces us of the delusion that we have arrived at a higher level of being, are “woke,” or are completely happy. Spiritual ideas and practices are used to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues. We become entranced by the beautiful parts of spirituality that we forget its real purpose of pushing us to become better.
How can you tell if it is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity should not be confused with people who are naturally optimistic or possess a bright and sunny personality. These people tend to focus on the good in life, but still embrace the times where they are feeling down. Phrases toxic people may use include “just be positive,” “good vibes only,” “do not be so negative,” or “think happy thoughts.” They manipulate spirituality in a way that does not offer any support, often becoming dismissive. Genuinely positive people will try and provide validation and hope. Phrases instead might sound like “it is okay to feel bad sometimes,” “failure is a part of growth,” “things are tough, but I am here for you,” or “how can I support you?”
What can I do to avoid toxic positivity?
In the short-term, you might find yourself in a situation where you need to put a smile on your face and push through the day to avoid a mini-meltdown during the middle of class. However, once you are home, if you do not permit yourself to experience the pain, you will suffer long-term consequences.
You can fight toxic positivity by recognizing that multiple complex emotions can exist in you all at once. You can be sad, angry, upset, anxious, drained, overwhelmed, and afraid, all while still being positive. Give yourself permission to experience both negative and positive emotions and be realistic. There are strategies we can use to examine ourselves spiritually and determine where we are struggling to grow. Guided meditations, journaling, and other mental exercises will help you identify parts of your life you need to deal with emotionally.
Toxic positivity is the act of escaping our stressful lives, thinking it will lead us to be happier and healthier. Growing up is not always pretty, and it is often life-shattering. However, we must accept these life struggles for what they are. The experiences we go through in life are essential for our spiritual growth.