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Positive thinking is something many of us start practicing when working to recover from addiction and mental illness. We learn that our thoughts create our attitudes and beliefs, and that in order to heal we want to be as positive and optimistic as possible. What we often aren’t aware of is that there is such a thing as toxic positivity, a concept that helps us clarify what kinds of positive thinking and motivation are helpful and conducive to healing, and which aren’t. We want to be able to encourage ourselves and our loved ones without unconsciously contributing to feelings of struggle and overwhelm. 

Toxic positivity occurs when we’re so focused on banishing negative thoughts that we start pushing positivity on ourselves and others too forcefully, and we stop being conscious of all our complex emotions. Emphasizing positive thinking doesn’t mean we never have a negative thought or emotion, that would be impossible. It means we try as much as possible to redirect the thoughts and feelings that don’t serve and empower us to ones that do. It means we try to be as uplifting and encouraging as we can, while still taking into account that recovery can be difficult and can be accompanied by painful, seemingly negative thoughts and feelings. We want to be able to honor the whole spectrum of our emotions, allowing ourselves to examine and gain more clarity on the ones that hurt so that we can heal them as we’re processing them. 

When we don’t honor our difficult emotions, we build resistance to them. We’re usually trying to fight them and make them disappear because they can be so uncomfortable and overwhelming for us. We don’t want to suffer, and we don’t want our loved ones to suffer. As addicts we’ve grown accustomed to using our drugs of choice to numb the pain of our difficult feelings, and now that we’re in recovery, we have to find other healthier ways of coping. Toxic positivity can stifle our growth and keep us from finding ways of healing, because we’re not facing our challenging emotions head on, we’re trying to force them away and gloss over them with positivity that often doesn’t feel genuine or meaningful. Examples of toxic positivity are saying things like “You’ll get over it” and “Just think positive thoughts.” While these are based on helpful ideas of moving through difficulty and directing our thoughts in positive directions, they also imply a fundamental lack of understanding about just how difficult and painful addiction and mental health issues can be. They’re not taking into account the desperation we feel when we don’t think we’ll be able to overcome something painful in our lives. They’re not factoring in just how difficult it can be to actually think positively when we’re suffering mentally and emotionally. 

To counter toxic positivity, we want to foster more empathy and understanding, for whomever is on the receiving end of our encouragement and guidance. Hearing advice when we’re in a painful place can be hard enough. We don’t think anyone understands what we’re going through. We assume the person giving advice has never experienced exactly what we’re experiencing. Receiving advice that doesn’t resonate with us or that doesn’t feel helpful can feel like we’re being beaten down when we’re trying to get back on our feet. It can feel like we’re being kicked when we’re down. It doesn’t help us to feel validated or heard. It can make us feel even more isolated and alone with our pain. On the other hand, empathy and understanding bring connection. They make us feel comforted. They show us our commonalities and help us to feel connected to other people coping with similar struggles. They teach us how we can be supportive, even if all we can do is provide a listening ear. When we think about trying to encourage positivity that isn’t toxic, we can offer hope and inspiration, while also respecting and validating our difficult feelings. We can focus on being as positive as possible, growing our faith and resilience, while still acknowledging how painful things might be in the moment. “I know how painful this situation is, but I believe in you, and I know you can get through it.” “I know it’s so hard to think positively right now, but is there a way we can shift our focus to what we feel grateful for in this moment?” When we’re suffering, hearing these things can feel so much more supportive than “Just get over it” or “stop thinking negatively.” It can hurt to be told our problems aren’t that serious, or that we should stop complaining, or that there are other people going through things that are much worse. These forms of pseudo-positivity make us feel as though our pain is being invalidated. We feel compelled to defend ourselves and the things we’re going through, to justify why we’re feeling so much pain, and to try to make people understand us.

Genuine supportive encouragement allows us to acknowledge our pain and then work to move through it in ways that feel gentle not forceful, conducive not hurtful. We want to be positive while simultaneously giving our challenges the attention and care they need. We want to cultivate hope and optimism without also denying our difficult feelings.

Riverside Recovery is committed to helping you uncover the issues fueling your addictions. Our treatment programs include multiple forms of therapy, family workshops and mindfulness-based relapse prevention education. Call (800) 871-5440 for more information.