Toxic Positivity: What To Say Instead of “Just Be Positive”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“It could be worse”
“Delete the negativity”
“Just don’t think about it”
“Never give up!”
You’ve certainly said or heard some of these phrases before. It’s fairly common, and people who say them usually have good intentions – they are just trying to help somebody feel better. However, as you probably know if you heard some of them while you were going through difficult times, they don’t work. In fact, they can sometimes make you feel even worse, right?
But why is that? How can too much positivity possibly be a bad thing?
When Positivity Becomes Toxic
Keeping a positive attitude during stressful times can be incredibly helpful. It can help us cope with the situation, feel hope, and keep working toward a solution. However, being positive and optimistic doesn’t mean we won’t ever feel unpleasant emotions. Having a positive attitude is a good thing. Pushing positivity to the detriment of your authentic emotions is not.
Toxic positivity is an idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and positive aspects of life. It’s an attitude that being positive, and only positive, is the right way to live your life. This implies that any unpleasant emotions are considered as negative, and should be avoided.
It would be great if it was possible to feel good all the time. However, not only that it is not, but it can be even harmful to us and the people around us. Rigid and intense as it is, toxic positivity doesn’t leave space for experiencing all human emotions and being authentic. Instead, it encourages the person to remain silent about their struggles.
Toxic Positivity Can Be Harmful To You And Your Relationships
We have all kinds of emotions. Emotions are messengers. When instead of listening to ourselves and allowing ourselves to feel, even (and especially!) when these feelings are not comfortable, we fight and resist them — we create tension in our body. Different studies show us that hiding or denying feelings, oh the irony, makes them bigger and increases stress.
Our unpleasant emotions show us where we need some gentleness and compassion. They inform us that something is not right, not necessarily in our surroundings, but in the way we see the situation as well. They encourage us to pay attention to the parts of ourselves that need healing or the places in our paths where we need to take a turn. By suppressing or avoiding some emotions, we don’t allow ourselves to fully express and be honest. The result is denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic emotional experience. When we go into hiding like that, we deny our truth. And the real truth is – life can be tough sometimes.
Toxic positivity can be harmful to your relationships too. When somebody is sad, anxious, fearful, what they need is support and understanding. Generic positive phrases can, although unintendedly, send the message: “You are not allowed to feel this way. Stop. It’s not okay to not be okay.” This is not helpful; it can make the person feel guilty or unheard. To them, it can sound like their emotions are not valid and important, and that they are wrong to feel the way they feel.
How To Support Someone Without Being “Too Positive”?
Feeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most important contributors to good mental health and happiness. When someone is going through a rough patch, we may not be sure how to support them. What to say to help them feel better? What to do? How to help them recover from setbacks more quickly? You may be inclined to tell them to “look on the bright side” and to “be grateful for what they already have”. However, these monochromatic statements are usually not helpful, because they are, on the basic level, dismissive. When happiness and positivity are compulsively pushed, the person doesn’t have the opportunity to feel truly heard and accepted, understood and supported. Instead, it can seem like he or she is rushed to stop feeling the way they feel, their emotions minimized and invalidated.
If we, instead, let the other person connect to their emotions and allow them to share them with us without judgment or the urge to run away to positivity, we are giving that person much-needed space to be authentic and still accepted. We are sending the message: “You can be yourself. It’s okay to not feel okay. I am here anyways”.
With toxic positivity, although it is usually not our intention, we are showing the other person that we are uncomfortable with their feelings and that we will put ourselves in the first place, urging them to stop feeling the way they feel so we can stop feeling uncomfortable. A much better, more comforting approach, is to show the other person that we are ready to sit with them with their emotions, that they are not alone, and that we are there to patiently give them our compassion and support. It can be truly healing.
So, what can you say instead of generic, “encouraging” sentences to support someone? Here are some suggestions:
It is important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions. Once we honour our feelings, we honour the whole of ourselves. We accept our positive parts, but also other, not-so-pretty sides. Accepting and loving ourselves as we are is the path toward balanced emotional life and better well-being.
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How Your Attachment Style Shapes Your Relationships
Do you ever wonder why you attract a certain “type” of people? Do you have patterns that you seem to repeat in relationships over and over again? Or maybe you noticed how the majority of your relationships unfold and end in a similar way?
This is not uncommon. All of us have a certain ‘style’ of connecting to others that we tend to repeat, which can result in similar patterns of outcomes throughout our relationships. These patterns are called ‘attachment styles’.
What Are Attachment Styles And Why Should You Care?
Attachment style is the way you relate to other people, the way you usually feel and behave in relationships in order to meet your needs. According to attachment theory that originates from research of Bowlby and Ainsworth, this pattern is established in early childhood.
Our parents have many different and important roles for us during our childhood. One of them is being an attachment figure through which we form beliefs and expectations on how relationships ‘work’ and what we should do to meet our needs for intimacy, belonging, and safety. Depending on the nature of our early relationships with our caregivers, we develop an attachment style that we, later, bring to relationships in our adult life.
Understanding your attachment style is a big deal because it can tell you a lot about how you relate to your friends, family, and romantic partners, what you do to meet your needs in relationships, why you may have specific insecurities, etc. Knowing your attachment style gives you an insightful perspective that can help you ‘break the pattern’ if you feel stuck or find yourself having very similar problems in relationships or repeating the same mistakes.
Although the way we behave in relationships has its unique elements for each of us, there are 4 most common global patterns of attachment in individuals:
Let’s take a detailed look at each of them and what kind of childhood patterns may they came from:
Secure Attachment Style
“It is easy for me to get close to others, and I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
People with a secure attachment style tend to build stable, trusting relationships and feel relatively confident in them. They are comfortable with intimacy and don’t have a problem sharing their feelings or asking for help or support. In romantic relationships, they have their independence and also let their partner have their own, but are at the same time okay with depending on others and feel like they can trust them. They have a positive view of themselves and others and don’t have difficulties feeling connected or expressing love openly.
Secure attachment background:
- Parent is emotionally available most of the time and responds to the child’s needs in a loving, soothing way
- Usually, the parent is also securely attached and successfully balances firmness with warmth in their parenting style
- The child sees the parent as a secure base from where it can independently explore the world and then safely come back for comfort and nurture when it feels the need
- The child learns that it can get love and care from other people, that it is safe to give needed space to others without the fear that they will leave them, but that it is also safe to depend on others
Avoidant Attachment Style
“I find it difficult to trust and depend on others and prefer that others do not depend on me. Feeling independent and self-sufficient is essential to me.”
People with this attachment style can seem emotionally distant and rejecting in close romantic relationships. They are uncomfortable with intimacy and feel like people usually want to get closer to them than they would prefer. One reason for this may be the fact that their independence is very important to them, which is not a problem on its own; however, they tend to equate intimacy with depending on someone, which is why they may have trouble with it and try to avoid it. In a way, they believe that the only person they can fully lean on is themselves. Thus, they have a hard time opening up to others and don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings.
Avoidant attachment background:
- Although the parent usually meets all child’s practical needs, he or she often does not respond to the child’s emotional needs and can seem emotionally unavailable most of the time
- In times when the child needs extra support and comfort, like when they’re scared or in distress, the parent can react in rejecting ways – become annoyed, harsh, neglectful, criticize or ridicule the child
- The parent may discourage displays of strong emotions, both positive and negative
- The child learns that it’s not safe to count on others for emotional closeness and that he or she should be independent and take care of their own needs and emotions. As a defence mechanism, it can suppress their true feelings and basic needs for connection and intimacy
Anxious Attachment Style
“I want to be very emotionally close to others, but others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t love or value me and will abandon me.”
This attachment style is characterized by insecurity and worry about rejection and abandonment. Anxiously attached people are often preoccupied with what other people think of them and have a hard time feeling secure in their relationships. In their need to gain approval and feel safer, anxiously attached people often require reassurance and “proofs of love”. However, it never seems to be enough. They seek high levels of emotional closeness and can be very sensitive to other people’s moods and behaviours. It is not rare for these individuals to “cling” to their partner or try to control their actions. This can lead to behaviours that others sometimes see as demanding, needy, or overly emotional.
Anxious attachment background:
- Parents are often inconsistent and unpredictable – sometimes loving and caring, other times emotionally unavailable or highly critical
- Parents sometimes expect their children to worry about them and their needs, which is overwhelming for the child
- The child is frustrated and confused, so it tries to find ways to secure the love and support, but unsuccessfully. Their efforts sometimes give results, but sometimes not, and the child doesn’t know what to expect
- The child learns that it can get love and support from others, but also that it can lose those precious sources of connection at any moment
Disorganized Attachment Style
“I am uncomfortable getting close to others and find it difficult to trust them. I want to belong but when I become close with someone I get scared, so I back away.”
Research shows that this attachment style, in comparison with other styles of attachment, more often can result from unresolved trauma or abuse in childhood. It manifests as a strong ambivalence toward intimacy. People with this attachment style desire closeness and connection with other people; however, when they get it, they suddenly become distant and cold, or experience uncomfortable emotions and display some extreme behaviours. They seem to be in a constant state of internal conflict – they want to trust other people but feel they can’t because they are convinced they will get hurt, they want intimacy and also reject it, they ask for affection but then quickly get overwhelmed by it and push people away, etc. As a result, their behaviour can be unpredictable and their relationships, sometimes, very intense, “dramatic”, or unstable.
Disorganized attachment background:
- A very inconsistent and unpredictable parent(s), with sometimes extreme behaviours
- The child wants to go to their parent for safety, but the closer they get, the more fear they feel because the parent’s behaviours can be terrifying at times
- The child learns that intimacy is something simultaneously very valuable and very threatening. They crave it and, at the same time, see it as something dangerous that can easily hurt them. It is impossible to integrate these two views, which leaves the child in a constant state of internal conflict and distress
Good News – Attachment Styles Are Not Set In Stone
It is true that different parenting styles affect children differently, shaping the way they understand relationships. However, it is important to note that this relation is not so simple. Research shows that it is not so much what happens to us as children but rather how we understood and made sense of what happened to us that predict what kind of attachment style we will develop.
Furthermore, your attachment style may not be permanent. Some researchers indicate that attachment styles can change as we get older. More precisely, our attachment sometimes tends to lean toward more secure as we age. Researchers explained this as a result of changing ideas about goals, values, relationships, stability, and trust.
Other studies also indicate that our later relationships and life events can alter our attachment styles. For example, going through a bad breakup or a divorce, experiencing betrayal, trauma, or abuse, can change our outlook on relationships and, consequentially, how we behave in them, how much we trust other people, what we are insecure about, etc. On the other hand, being in a relationship with a secure partner, scientists believe, can improve our sense of security in a relationship. It makes sense – being with someone who is caring and attentive, who pays attention to our needs and shows us they’re there for us, and who does these things consistently, can change our idea about relationships and show us that they can be stable and that we can be loved the way we are.
The point is, it is not all black and white. Our attachment style can depend on many factors, not just our parents’ behaviour. Frankly, adulthood is complicated, and the paths that take us to it are super variable. Although science suggests that, one way or another, our early relationships have a life-long impact on us, it’s never a simple thing to understand the intensity or the course of that impact.
We are all unique. The way we act is not just simply who we are born to be; what we learned we can also unlearn, what holds us back we can change, and what brings us closer to others we can embrace.
What is your attachment style? Let us know in the comment section below!
Also, if you like this article and find it useful, please be free to share it on your social media.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1991). Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle. In C . M. Parkes, J. Stevenson-Hinde, & P. Marris (Eds.), Attachment across the life cycle (pp. 33-51). London: Routledge.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Cassidy, J. (2008). The nature of the child’s ties. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (p. 3–22). The Guilford Press.
Hazan C, Shaver P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 52 (3): 511–24.
Fraley C. R. (2018). Adult Attachment Theory And Research: A Brief Overview. Retrieved from: http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
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