Recently I was given the wonderful opportunity to write an article on PsychCentral about Stonewalling and Gaslighting. You can read the original article here.

I wanted to use this article to shed light on how what we now see talked about as toxic positivity, and how it compares to gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

As I wrote in the above article, the term gaslighting comes from a 1940’s film ‘Gaslight’. The movie was about a husband who was attempting to make his wife think she was going insane so that he can take her inheritance. Gaslighting is associated with manipulation or narcissism, however, the person who is doing the gaslighting may not intend to do harm, or act in malice.

An Example of Gaslighting: “You’re Crazy.” “You’re making this up.”

What is Toxic Positivity?

As I understand it, toxic positivity is the belief that we need to stay positive no matter what. Personally, I never heard this expression until this year, and I suppose this behavior has been running wild since the pandemic started. Toxic positivity becomes a problem when people feel that they cannot or should not feel negative, even when things aren’t going well. To add insult to injury people maybe practicing toxic positivity may say things like:

“Cheer up, it’s not that bad.”

“You’ll be fine, you’re strong.”

“Man up.”

The difference between gaslighting and toxic positivity is that gaslighting has more to do with manipulation. There is usually a power dynamic involved. Toxic positivity on the other hand seems to be a good way of coping with a tough situation, but it ends up being harmful.

Issues with Toxic Positivity

The notion that we need to be ok all of the time, is highly unrealistic, and honestly super harmful. In our society, there seems to be a sense of shame of not having it all together all of the time. Therefore, people suffer in silence. When one may go to speak about their pain and get met with “Aww you’re young. You’ll be ok”, can make one feel wrong for feeling how they do about what they are experiencing. This can lead to more shame and guilt and can make one’s grief more intense.

Ways to Combat Toxic Positivity

If the toxic positivity is self-inflicted, I get it. Society tells us that we must be “strong” and keep moving no matter what. So often, we learn to not feel our feelings and to just keep it moving. But that’s in fact not the move. Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is to admit your feelings and get honest and raw about them. Feeling your feelings and being honest about them isn’t the norm for many of us. sometimes this is when you need the support of a therapist or professional to help you learn to not only be kind to yourself but to get real! Life has its challenges and living through a pandemic covered in isolation, historic political divides, and racial tensions surely did not help things. Another way to stop yourself from self-inflicting toxic positivity is to notice what is going on with you physically. Are you having issues sleeping? Tense in any part of your body? Or eating or sleeping more or less than your norm? These are some of the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. I am not saying that simply trying to push through life will mean that you have anxiety or depression, but I am suggesting by ignoring what is going on with you to save face and push through, you may be more susceptible to symptoms that may look like it.

Take care of yourself.

If you recognize that you are inflicting toxic positivity, there are solutions. You may be responding this way due to the fact of being uncomfortable with what people are telling you. So if someone close to you is telling you about their failing marriage, or the death of a loved one, and you find yourself saying one of the things I’ve listed above, think about why. But for an actionable step, you don’t have to know what to say, and if you don’t, don’t force it.

To Sum it up, in order to deal with toxic positivity:

  1. Recognize it
  2. Know that negative feelings are normal, you don’t have to be ok all of the time
  3. Get comfortable with negative emotions as they come up within yourself or others
  4. Be kind to yourself

Life is not about knowing. Just because you are learning things about yourself that you may not like, it is ok! The good news is you are not supposed to have all of the answers. If you did, life would be super boring. Whether you are self-inflicting or saying things like this to others there is something that you can do!