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Understanding Toxic Positivity in Addiction Recovery

Written on August 23, 2022
Understanding Toxic Positivity in Addiction Recovery

Toxic Positivity is an outlook that can derail a person’s recovery from addiction, especially early on. It can also hold individuals back from connecting with themselves and their loved ones, as well as experiencing a fully deep, rich, and meaningful life.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity refers to the notion that no matter what happens in life, we should keep a positive attitude. Although in principle, this sounds like a good idea, helping someone power through turbulence in their life. 

In general, being positive is a good thing. Research by the NCBI substantiates the idea that having a positive attitude will create a strong mental wellbeing over the long run. However, toxic positivity can result in someone not processing difficult emotions like sadness, grief, and loss, as well as denying these experiences in others. In short, toxic positivity takes a positive attitude to an extreme and denies one the ability to acknowledge any emotions that aren’t related to happiness. 

Some examples of toxic positivity include, but are not limited to:

  • After experiencing loss or falling short of a goal, people might say “everything happens for a reason.” While this thought may be comforting, it can also prevent individuals from experiencing the full degree of emotions they’re feeling.
  • When feeling sadness, sometimes people might say “happiness is a choice.” The unconscious suggestion here is that if you’re feeling unhappy, it’s your fault for not choosing to be happy.
  • When you lose a job and your friends or family tell you to “look on the bright side” or “just stay positive.” Although this sentiment is usually meant to be very sympathetic it can result in shutting down difficult emotions.

How Is Toxic Positivity Harmful in Addiction Recovery?

Ultimately, toxic positivity denies people the authentic support that’s often needed to process difficult emotions. Although the idea of “positive vibes only” may sound good in theory, it can often lead to unintended problems. Rather than sharing one’s authentic feelings and receiving support and acknowledgment, people may find their feelings being dismissed, invalidated or ignored altogether. Some examples of the type of harm that can come include:

  • Prevents growth. By not exploring difficult emotions, people avoid learning how to positively cope. Consequently, this limits people’s ability to grow and process their emotions in helpful ways.
  • Feeling guilty. Sometimes people may feel that if they aren’t being positive in the face of adversity, they’re doing something wrong. This results in feelings of guilt.
  • Feeling shame. Similar to guilt, people can grow to feel shame for expressing their emotions and not being blindly positive. People need to know it’s okay to express their emotions and they’ll find unconditional love and support in their friends and family.
  • Avoiding authentic connection. In essence, toxic positivity is an avoidance mechanism. It allows people to avoid processing difficult emotions or situations in lieu of “just staying positive.” This means that people avoid feeling emotions that make them uncomfortable. 

Toxic positivity is harmful in addiction recovery for a number of reasons. It can enable someone to deny trigger warning signs, increasing the risk of relapse. Further, it can cause one to deny the root cause of the addiction, such as trauma, thus standing as a barrier to deeper healing. Many people who once used substances to avoid difficult feelings can replace them with toxic positivity, thereby becoming dependent on a positive attitude to function.

Signs and Symptoms of Toxic Positivity

If you’re wondering whether or not you struggle with toxic positivity, here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Trying to be stoic in the face of difficult situations
  • Not facing one’s problems
  • Feeling guilty or shameful about being angry, sad or disappointed
  • Minimizing other people’s feelings because they’re making you uncomfortable
  • Shaming others for not having a positive attitude
  • Hiding your true feelings

To overcome relationships with toxic positivity, you can try to manage your difficult emotions rather than rejecting them all together. It’s okay to feel however you do and it’s important to try to surround yourself with people who accept this. If the people you surround yourself with consistently deny your emotions, it’s important to set up boundaries and voice your needs to express yourself. 

If you or your loved one is struggling with toxic positivity in your relationships, contact our team today. Our clinical team has experience working with clients to voice their needs and implement strong foundations for relationships.