How toxic positivity makes grieving so much harder to manage

We’ve all heard of the term ”toxic positivity” at some point in our lives – likely through social media features, mainstream news and everything in between.

Negative emotions are not allowed.

There has been a ”positive vibes only” movement among many social circles, families and communities for some time now.

And while being positive is a wonderful carved out notion about how the human experience should be, this type of thinking is not only unrealistic, but it is also incredibly unhelpful – particularly for grievers who pretty much live in ”Platitude Central” after the loss of a loved one.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years.

Because of all this, it has become challenging for most of us to discern whether someone has a positive attitude or whether they are cultivating toxic positivity in any given situation or life event.

Inner struggles

When it comes to toxic positivity, essential questions (and confusion) may arise, such as: If I’m focusing on having more gratitude, is that a bad thing? Is what happened at work today a case of toxic positivity? Is toxic positivity even genuine?

All this confusion gets compounded since toxic positivity doesn’t get classified as a psychological or academic term.

Everything happens for a reason

However, there appears to be a collective understanding of this well-meaning ”good vibes only” culture that may shed some light on the subject of toxic positivity, particularly for those dealing with the trauma of grief:

Toxic positivity is promoting the goal or ideal, that no matter what the circumstances or situation, a person must always and only maintain a happy, positive or optimistic mindset.

The pressure to stay positive

When a person or group of people are insistent on cultivating toxic positivity – especially in emotionally charged situations such as grief, this toxic positivity creates a whole range of psychological problems for the recipient, including:

  • Shame and avoidance
  • Anger
  • Mental health problems
  • The urge to repress their feelings, grief and human emotions
  • Other negative stress responses such as anxiety and depression
  • Faking happiness to appease others

Silver lining

When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, whether it be a child, parent, husband or wife, or when another shocking life event occurs, such as a cancer diagnosis or even a global pandemic, all these experiences may induce grief.

According to grief recovery experts John James and Russell Friedman, grief is; The conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.

From this, we learn that grief (and toxic positivity) can occur in many life situations, all of which may involve:

  • Moving home
  • Going through a divorce or breakup
  • Going on vacation
  • Changing jobs
  • Losing touch with a friend
  • The death of a loved one

Words matter

All of us possess the right to feel sad, and accessing this type of emotion can actually be cathartic and usually does no harm. Therefore, the words and actions we display towards someone grieving must get conducted with empathy and care.

Unhelpful comments used by people with toxic positivity often include ”at least your loved one isn’t in pain anymore” and ”at least they had a good life before they died” or worse, ”everything happens for a reason”.

Although these comments may be well-meaning, they do nothing to soothe the person who is grieving.

Grieving process

We cannot intellectualize grief by attempting to better it or add good vibes to it by using phrases to each other (such as the ones above).

Grief is primarily an emotional process, not an intellectual one – therefore, our response to this type of thing should be to speak to the heart and not to the mind.

For example, if you happen to be comforting a grieving friend or any other loved ones, it might be helpful to use statements such as:

  • I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I am here to listen and offer support wherever I can. 
  • I am so sorry for your loss. 
  • I understand that you may not want to discuss things right now, but I am here to listen when ready.

Not everything happens for a reason.

By releasing our emotions, we are not indulging in negative acts, being a ”Debbie Downer” or any other unhelpful phrases that people cultivating toxic positivity may use explicitly or implicitly.

Grief and sadness are a part of the human experience – they are synonymous with the love and subsequent pain we experience when a loved one dies.

The problem with toxic positivity

We cannot ignore, drink, smile or ”good vibes” our way out of grief; the only way out of suffering is in – to experience all the unpleasant emotions and the pain that accompanies loss.

The problem with toxic positivity is that it upholds the paradigm that ”feeling bad” is terrible in itself. 

This type of thinking can be detrimental to the griever who must get given the space to experience and process their grief in their unique way, come what may.

Grief symptoms

The grieving process may include (but is not limited to):

  • Emotional pain and rawness
  • Avoidance and social isolation
  • An inability to face the world
  • Denial
  • A deep yearning for the lost loved one
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Numbness
  • Anger
  • Derealization
  • Emotional dysregulation

Risk factors

Any type of movement that believes that concealing our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs is positive (such as toxic positivity) can lead to many people turning to harmful coping mechanisms such as addiction to substances like drugs and alcohol (and any other addictive behaviors).

When our lives become disrupted by trauma and turmoil, we often turn to things to help us cope, and sometimes (unconsciously), we become willing participants in our destruction.

Substance addiction

Addiction, cultivating bad friends and adopting risky behaviors all encompass the harmful resources people draw on to cope.

Grievers often use alcohol and drugs to cope with the intense pain of something like grief – this is especially true for those who get silenced in their grief.

When someone is ”high’’ on something such as alcohol or drugs, they may indulge in feelings of denial, temporary happiness and toxic positivity to abolish the pain and unpleasant feelings in an attempt to feel better.

Of course, this doesn’t work long-term as the negative feelings return tenfold once the person is sober.

How do you respond to toxic positivity?

Firstly, people must acknowledge that feeling bad or having bad feelings is not a negative thing.

However, toxic positivity relays the message that grief is a filthy word, something that must get avoided at all costs.

Of course, it would be completely unreasonable to ask someone who has just lost a mother, child or sibling to ”look on the bright side!” or to expect them to think that ”life is great.”

Emotions aren’t good or bad

Humanity is about feeling a full range of emotions; the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Researchers in mental health explain that emotions aren’t good or bad; they just are. It is what we do with our feelings and emotions that matter.

Data also shows how important it is for grievers to get given the space to experience their feelings, the hard ones and the easy ones, without someone telling them how negative they are or that their feelings are wrong.

Giving meaning to pain

Steven Hayes (founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) explains that:

Psychological flexibility is the ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you. 

These building habits allow you to live life in accordance with your values and aspirations.  It’s about learning not to turn away from what is painful, instead turning toward your suffering to live a life that is full of meaning and purpose.

The impact of toxic positivity

Mark Manson explains the various fields of toxic positivity with the following description:

”The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering, the avoidance of struggle is a struggle, the denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”

Reaching out to Camino Recovery

Reaching out

Making the space to feel our emotions (however complex they might be) is a good thing and leads to recovery and healing.

When people are silenced in their grief by toxic positivity- it can lead to a range of mental and physical problems for both the body and mind.

Emotions are there to get felt, and grieving is part and parcel of the bereavement experience – which should get explored.

If you feel you have been a victim of toxic positivity or need help processing your grief – perhaps it’s time to speak to one of our specialists who may be able to help.

Don Lavender

Don specialized in addiction studies, earning an MDiv and a master's in Management, Administration, and Counseling. As a priest, he supported Step 5s in local treatment centers for nearly 40 years, excelling in "family systems work" in the addiction field.

Additionally, Don pioneered equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in the US and UK during the 1990s. He authored "Equine Utilized Psychotherapy: Dance with those that run with laughter" and gained media recognition, including appearances on 'the Trisha Show' and features in The Daily Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, Don and his wife, Meena, founded Camino Recovery in Spain, providing tailored addiction treatment programs aimed at fostering happier lives.

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