Often, life confronts us with situations in which we have little to no control. Maybe we become ill or sustain an injury. Maybe we receive difficult world news that significantly alters our lives. Maybe we just have had a really hard time.
life gives you lemons, how do you make lemonade?
In bitter times, we may find ourselves wanting to add as much “sugar” as possible. This might include adopting positive mantras, like “Power through it!” or, “Look on the bright side!” Sometimes this strategy helps, and we feel a bit more energized to take on the challenges in front of us. Other times, we may end up over-relying on staying positive, where we’ve taken our lemonade from too bitter to drink, and instead made it far too sweet from too much forced sugar.
When this happens, we may be practicing toxic positivity. Therapists Samara Quintero and Dr. Jamie Long define toxic positivity as “the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” Meaning that when we hyper-focus our efforts on staying positive, we end up ignoring the true complexity of our experience and neglecting painful emotions.
What can make positivity toxic?
Over-focusing on the positives can create new problems. Relying primarily on the positives often results in ignoring painful thoughts and feelings. This can actually make difficult thoughts and feelings stronger, which in turn makes them harder to ignore. It can also stress our bodies out. Additionally, this can lead to additional uncomfortable experiences, such as guilt (“Why can’t I just get over this?”) and shame (“Other people don’t seem to be struggling with this like I am…”).
Leveling up: Moving from toxic positivity to realistic hope.
If being too positive can be toxic, how are we supposed have hope while still being realistic? Realistic hope doesn’t mean putting an overly positive spin on things (especially since we are trying to avoid toxic positivity!) Instead, hope is about adopting an authentically positive attitude that encourages us to see the ways we can have control and choice in our situation, despite the challenges in front of us. When we perceive we have no control, we are more likely to feel hopeless. To take a realistically hopeful stance is about living our lives with meaning, purpose, and direction. The good news is, there are lots of ways we can set ourselves up to access hope, without falling into the territory of toxic positivity.
Acknowledge all of your feelings.
our uncomfortable emotions and thoughts can be difficult, overwhelming, and
scary. We might worry that we will get “stuck,” or that we will feel hopeless
or miserable. That’s why the right recipe for lemonade needs both the bitter
tartness from the lemons, and the sweet relief from sugar! Rather than focusing
solely on the positives or the negatives, the key is acknowledging both. The
goal is not to have our emotions competing with one another, but instead to
recognize that all our experiences are valid. Even the most negative thoughts
and feelings are there to communicate something important to us. Taking the
time to sit with and acknowledge these experiences can help us feel more
authentic, and can set us up to find authentic hope in our situations.
During difficult times, we may find ourselves working hard to create a solution or to change our situation. When we have a problem that has a solution, this can be great. What do we do when we have limited control or there is nothing specific we can do to change the bigger picture? When work to accept rather than solve our current reality, we can more clearly see the opportunities for hope. Shinzen Young, an American mindfulness teacher who uses historic Buddhist principles, captures the importance of practicing acceptance through a mathematical formula:
PAIN x RESISTANCE = SUFFERING
means that when we work against (or resist) the pain in our lives, we can
unintentionally make things feel worse. Accepting difficult situations does not
mean giving up or giving in, or even liking or agreeing with something. Acceptance
is about acknowledging reality – both the good and the bad. Rather than looking
for a solution, acceptance is about being honest with ourselves so that we can
access hope without working against our pain.
Focus on what we can do and create a purpose.
can also access hope by finding meaning or importance in even the most
miserable of circumstances. To be positive and hopeful involves having goals,
as well as a desire and a plan to achieve them. When we can act in ways that
feel productive and/or meaningful, we start to bridge the connection towards
feeling hopeful. Maybe hidden in your current circumstances is some new
opportunity. Ask yourself what you can do right now that would give you a sense
of purpose. Are there any causes, activities, or conversations you can be
involved in? Are there any meaningful ways you can use your strengths? Let’s
say you find purpose in bringing others joy. Maybe you can send letters or
cards to people you care about, or even to others who might be struggling.
Alternatively, you can look for ways to volunteer (even from home!) to help
those who might need some extra joy in their lives.
During difficult times, it is common to feel isolated and alone. While no one else may fully understand what we are going through, we are not truly alone! Research shows that we can generate hope by connecting with others. This can include friends, family, teammates, neighbors, coworkers, or even working to find others who are going through something similar. If we are unable to physically be present with others, virtual connection is easier than ever. If you feel like you need more support than those in your life can offer, or if you feel like you have no one to turn to, remember that it is okay to ask for help. Take This has a list of resources here.
There will be times where finding hope for a better future seems like an impossible task. Working to stay non-toxically positive can be an exercise in patience. We can find the courage and hope to face our difficulties if we work to be authentic, engage in purposeful work, and stay connected.
Leah Benjamin, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist working in the Greater Boston Area. She is a private practice clinician, working with adolescents and adults in individual and group therapy. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and video games, baking, hiking, and eye-rolling puns.