by: E.B. Johnson
Positive thinking can be powerful, but it can also be limiting and destructive too. While any successful endeavor we undertake requires a certain amount of positivity, it also requires realism. We can be stunted in our personal and professional growth by an overwhelm of positive thinking, or the belief that our positive thinking alone will make things better. Life requires action, not just happy thoughts.
When you take thinking on the upside too far, it can actually result in toxic positivity — a condition that’s marked by the layers of consequences that come from relying too much on your happy thoughts. While looking on the bright side can bring you many things, it can’t bring you everything, but that’s something that takes careful consideration and understanding to realize.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is many things, but mostly it’s our tendency to over rely on our positive thoughts (or desires) as a means to get where we want to be. It’s insisting that the silver lining is the only lining to look at, or an over-reliance on seeing the upside to the point that you avoid other things in your life that might be uncomfortable or require a greater amount of attention.
When we lean too heavily on positive thinking methods, it can actually cause us to turn away from reality and the emotions and circumstances that are unpleasant or complex. Positive thinking has many transformative powers, but when we dwell too much in the good, we forget (conveniently) to address the bad. Over time, these unpleasant experiences and emotions add up, leading to a potential whirlwind of discomfort and feeling like can take a lifetime to unravel and heal.
The cons of being too positive.
There are a more than a few serious downsides to relying too much on our positivity. While thinking happy can do a lot for our mental and physical health, it can do a lot to damage it as well. It’s important to strike a balance that works for us, but that’s only possible about coming to understand how positive thinking may be undermining our overall happiness.
Any number of articles will tell you to dream big and think positively, but some studies show that this is actually a recipe for disaster. When we set ambitious goals, we’re more likely to feel confident about accomplishing them and therefore more entitled to them. Once the entitlement sets in, we coast, and that can lead to our dreams falling through or fading away. Those who think more pessimistically about their goals are actually more likely to achieve them. Is it because their pessimism pushes them to work harder? Maybe so. The truth is clear, however. Too much positivity = unrealistic expectations.
A toll on your health
Like everything else in life our thoughts — and their success or failure — come down to moderation. Thinking too positively can actually lead you to neglect your health, and some studies have shown that negativity is actually more motivating when it comes to our bodies and the way we fuel it and care for it. More specifically, you’re more likely to see to your health when you’re worried about it or unhappy with some aspect of it. When you’re lost in a world of positivity, however, you can be less inclined to take care of yourself the way you should.
Making the unwell feel worse
If you’re someone who is already struggling with chronic health problems or clinical depression and anxiety, relying on a positive-only thought-diet is more likely to exacerbate your emotional condition. When we are sick, hurt, angry, scared or injured — we have to face these emotions head-on and deal with them in order to truly find our way back to happiness. Dwelling the the realm of happiness and butterflies only can cause you turn away from these emotions and shutter them. Forcing happiness when there are real issues on the table will only make your more miserable.
Crippling your emotions
Toxic positivity seriously impacts our psychological flexibility, which is an important skill that allows us to tap into our psychological resources as needed. This flexibility requires us to use optimism and pessimism equally, creating a balance that allows us to perceive and process the reality of our situations appropriately, despite the stress of day-to-day life.
Despite what you might think, too much positivity can also cause issues in our romantic relationships. Some research has shown that positivity can go toxic when applied to a relationship that’s already strained or struggling with a number of other issues. Rather than face the problems we’re having with our partner, an over-reliance on positivity is more likely to make us turn away from those issues, causing them to further fester and compound. Over time, this drives us further and further away from the person we love, therefore eroding our overall positivity.
Signs you’ve taken your positive thinking too far.
There are some concrete signs that you’ve taken your positive thinking too far. If you find yourself internalizing everything and taking on the weight of the world, while simultaneously avoiding the things that feel overcoming or overwhelming — it might be a sign that it’s time to reassess the positive-negative balance in your life.
You’ve started avoiding things
The biggest consequence of toxic positivity — by far — is its ability to make us turn away from things we would better off addressing. As mentioned above, when we rely too much on the positive power of our thoughts, it can cause us to ignore or avoid the unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions that need to be brought to light in order to get resolved.
You’re getting lazy about life
Avoidance is a tricky mistress, because she can quickly take you down the path of laziness. It’s easy to get comfortable with the avoidance game, but soon you find yourself sitting on life’s sideline while everyone (and everything) else passes you by. When we get lazy about life, we start to miss important opportunities that might otherwise have made us feel happy, rounded and fulfilled.
You’re overdoing it
One of the downsides of being an overly positive person is that you also gain the tendency to overdo it. Those who rely on their positive thoughts and experiences alone are those who burn the candle at both ends, while always pushing themselves to do the best and be the best. While this might work in the short term, over time, these people find themselves experiencing low thoughts and burn out; delaying their personal journeys an taking them further away from the goals they are so desperately pursuing.
You’re victimizing yourself
A lot of overly positive people have a tendency to victimize themselves or internalize the negative things in their life that cause stress and hurt. It usually goes something like this: a bad thing happens and then the positive person blames themself for that event. If you had only been more positive, that wouldn’t have happened. Over time, this can culminate in a permeating narrative or belief in not being good enough, or of being weak and powerless in your own destiny.
You’re using all-or-nothing language
Toxic positivity doesn’t leave room for pain, and it also doesn’t leave room for anything but absolute language. One sign you might be relying too much on your positive thinking is all-or-nothing language like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Nothing happens without our consent.” Words like everything and nothing unintentionally speak power to the growing and disproportionate belief that everything is your fault (it’s not) and you’re entirely powerless (or too powerful) in the world around you.
Positive people have a tendency to overthink. If you’ve found yourself noticing over-focusing on every single thought that comes to mind, or if you’ve found yourself getting angry at any negative thoughts that bubble to the surface — you might be overthinking things and making them more or less important than they are. Mastering your mind is all good and well, but denying its true nature is anything but beneficial to the growth you’re trying to achieve. You can be aware of your thoughts without creating a thesis around them every time.
How to combat toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity can be a hard thought pattern to overcome, but it is possible. Just as we can retrain our overly-negative thoughts, it’s possible to retrain our overly positive thoughts and find a balance that works for us and our goals. The secret is all about getting to know and the way your emotions function both in the good times and the bad. In short — finding true balance is all about getting to know you.
1. Stop keeping a tally
Many of the positivity articles out there tell us that there is a perfect happiness to negativity ration that should be maintained at all times, but that just isn’t true. Human emotions are complex and dynamic and they shift and change according to the circumstances of our existence. While there is a balance that should be maintained, that balance differs from person to person and situation to situation. If we truly want to unlock authentic happiness, we have to drop the tally and learn how to let our emotions stand as they are.
Not everyone can be happy all the time. Stop spending the day tallying up your positive experiences while guaging them against the negative ones. Some days have more negative experiences than others. Some days are neutral. Our happiness cannot be guaged by a comparison of experiences, because it is something that fluctuates and changes. True happiness comes when we learn how to drop the tally and start being real.
Drop the manufactured happiness and let your emotions — whether positive or negative — inform the decisions and reactions you engage in. Stop believing that a certain number of good things must happen in order to negate the bad. Just like our emotions are both good and bad, our experiences are both good and bad. That is to say nothing of who we are or where we’re going. It just is.
2. Figure out your balance
While thinking too positively can be bad for our emotional health and regulation, the same is true for thinking too negatively or pessimistically. Positive thinking can be a powerful tool when wielded correctly, but negative thinking too can be of great benefit when we’re working hard to achieve the things we really want from life. It’s all about figuring out a balance that works for you and embracing the emotions that come from daily life.
There’s lots of anecdotal evidence out there which touts the power of positive thinking. When you visualize yourself achieving or doing well, you’re more likely to do it, but negative thinking too keeps us grounding in reality and working hard towards those things in life which give us meaning or purpose.
Find a balance that works for you. You can start by keeping a thought diary, and recording the thoughts you get throughout the day both good and bad. Notice the emotional responses you get from those thoughts, and try to identify a balance (of the optimistic and the pessimistic) which allows you to achieve the goals you set out to tackle. When balanced correctly, our positive thoughts and our negative thoughts paint a complete picture of reality that neither one on their own could paint alone.
3. Embrace the darkness
Part of our human nature incorporates a certain amount of darkness that is necessary in order for us to temper our world-view appropriately. As complex creatures with complex emotions, embracing our darkness is essential in order to tackle our personal demons and establish the personal development we need to create the life we need to thrive. But that takes a lot of know-how and self-reflection.
Take some time each day to acknowledge whatever strangeness, disappointment or loss you’re dealing with. Call it out for what it is and name your feelings as they come to the surface. Keep a record of them. Accept them for what they are and then let them go. Do this for a few minutes each day.
Only when we accept ourselves — and our emotions — for what they are and the role they play in our lives can we truly elevate our authentic self to true joy and happiness. Dwelling only in the realm of the positive does nothing to embrace who we are at our core, so it’s imperative to let the darkness in (just enough) to see it for what it is and the benefits it can offer us when balanced against our better natures.
4. Start a mindful journaling practice
Balancing our positive and negative thoughts is all about balancing our emotions and there are few things better for this process than a mindful journaling practice.
Journals can act as the checkpoint between your emotions and your current mental space, allowing you to align your feelings and your reactions in a way that is more authentic to who you truly are. Use your journal as an outlet for the stress and emotional struggles you deal with throughout the day. With a journal, you don’t have to hold back, so fully express who you are and what you’re thinking.
Once you’ve composed your thoughts, check back regularly to reasses how you’re feeling and to judge how far you’ve come. When we look back at our thoughts, we can empower personal growth and expansion of our own personal knowledge and self-revelation. The only person who has the secrets to unlocking our happiness our misery is us. Taking a few minutes each day to establish a mindful journaling practice is a great way to begin that journey.
5. Start being honest about how you’re feeling
We have to be honest about our emotions in order to deal with them fully and effectively. Emotions can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but they exist for a reason. More often than not, that reason is to protect us from some looming hurt, or get resolution for some lingering piece of baggage from our pasts. Our emotions are important, but we have to be honest with ourselves and others in order to truly activate their deeply hidden powers.
Start being honest about how you’re feeling. Try to be a little more honest each day. If you’re sad, embrace that. If you’re angry, ask yourself why. Don’t look away from the uncomfortable bits and stop pretending that everything will be okay if you “just look on the brightside”. Our emotions exist to be addressed, so address them — and don’t shy away from the truth.
On the same note, encourage others to be honest about how they’re feeling as well. Let your spouses and partners know that shining a light is the only way to move forward, and let them know that they are safe to share how they are feeling with you. The emotions that we feel in our relationships are only as good as they are shared. Share how you’re feeling, honestly, and require that same honesty in the people you surround yourself with.
Putting it all together…
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much positivity. When we lean too heavily on positive thinking alone, it can lead to a certain avoidance tendency in our lives, and lead too to self-victimization and an internalization of baggage that is not yours to carry. If you’ve noticed yourself overthinking, overdoing or beginning to avoid the unpleasant things in your life, it might be a sign that your positivity has run toxic and it’s time to make some changes.
Stop keeping a tally of the positive events in your life and stop comparing your happiness continually against what you think it’s supposed to be. Embrace your emotions for what they are, and embrace your darkness too. To be human is to feel, and that is both a beautiful and an empowering thing. Figure out your personal positivity / negativity balance and start a mindful journaling practice to help you get started. By keeping track of your emotions, you’ll better be able to identify the things that no longer suit you, and the things that empower you to do more. Get honest about how you’re feeling and encourage others to be honest about their emotions too. Positive thinking isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about seeing the good despite the reality. Embrace the good and the bad in your life and start transforming it one day at a time.