Don’t worry, be happy! Yeah, STFU. The notion that thinking positively can solve your problems and bury your worries just isn’t true. Though optimism can be helpful, constant messaging to “just be happy” can actually invalidate real emotions and perpetuate an idea that mental health struggles are abnormal. There’s a name for the overly cheesy, clearly disingenuous and super cringeworthy inspo quotes plastered on social media feeds—toxic positivity.
Cutesy Instagram graphics with phrases like “you’ll make it through this” and “everything will be okay,” are examples of toxic positivity. This phenomenon, according to Healthline, is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation or feeling is, people should maintain a positive mindset.
Angelica Gonzalez, a licensed mental health therapist in Coral Gables, said that the issue is not positivity itself, but the fact that these common tropes can invalidate “other people’s feelings, hardships and traumas.”
Gonzalez said throwing out happy, “cookie cutter” phrases as a response to expressions of negative emotions can cause the affected person to feel frustrated, unseen and unheard.
These positive blanket statements, she explained, can actually show how some people don’t understand how to properly validate the feelings of others. Attempting to gloss over someone else’s hardships with a cutesy text, she continued, says a lot more about the person doing the glossing than the individual who is feeling down.
“Sometimes people make it seem like it’s easy to be positive,” said Gabriela Chin, a senior biology major at the University of Miami, “when for some people it’s really hard, whether it be because of metal health issues or just something going on in their lives.” College students in particular, she said, may feel this pressure to constantly be positive despite the draining demands of schoolwork and other stressors.
“People put expectations on us or expect us to always be positive since we are young and should ‘be grateful,’” she said. “These people don’t know how stressful and draining university work is.”
“When I think of somebody being dismissive or gaslighting,” said Gonzalez, “it’s really that they don’t understand what validation is, which is just being able to sit with somebody and say ‘I understand how you’re feeling,’ or ‘it must be so hard that you’re feeling this way.’”
During the pandemic specifically, Gonzalez said, anxiety reached an all-time high in college students, and many weren’t able to successfully validate those anxious thoughts and feelings.
“It’s really important for college students to address these emotions,” she continued, “because if not, it’s just sitting underneath the surface and eventually will explode into something else, whether that be binge drinking or maybe a situation where everyone is under the impression that you’re fine, but really you’re alone in your apartment, completely freaking out.”
Paola Quijano, a senior majoring in motion pictures, said she has questioned the validity of her own feelings as a result of toxic positivity. “When I would be feeling sad,” she said, “I felt like the reasons weren’t good enough to be sad or they weren’t valid. I would feel guilty about my sadness, and instead of trying to understand and resolve it, I was constantly trying to push it away.”
Quijano said this problem did not get better until she began therapy and learned to face her emotions and validate how she was feeling. “Unless you work through it, it’s always going to be there beneath the surface,” she said. “I think healthy positivity validates how you’re feeling, and feels more constructive and helpful. With toxic positivity, it mostly just sounds like a cheesy ‘get well soon’ card.”
But negative feelings don’t have to last forever, either. There are healthy ways to improve mental health and bring about real happy emotions that don’t need to be edited for Insta.
Both Quijano and Chin said that getting out of their old routines, exercising and engaging in neglected hobbies helped them deal with negative emotions.
Gonzalez said one exercise professionals like her utilize for clients is the “1, 2, 3, 4 method,” which focuses on deep breathing for relaxation. “You simply count inward for four seconds, hold it for a second and breathe outward for four seconds,” she explained. “Doing that a couple of times will get your nervous system to calm down.”
Sometimes it’s difficult, Gonzalez said, to differentiate between solid advice and toxic positivity. However, she said the priority is to ensure people feel heard, validated and equipped with the tools to handle whatever their hardships may be. So say goodbye to those ‘one-size-fits-all’ phrases and hello to empathy and healthy habits.
Healthy ways to deal with negative emotions:
This seems silly. But blowing bubbles activates your diaphragmatic breathing (AKA deep breathing), which is an effective way to quickly calm down your nervous system.
Not everyone enjoys breaking a sweat. But simply moving your body for 30 minutes each day, whether it be walking your dog outside or practicing a simple yoga routine on your balcony, releases endorphins. And as Elle Woods once said, “endorphins make you happy.”
Journaling activates both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. By bringing your thoughts onto paper, processing your negative emotions becomes more objective and easier to do. Plus, in the months and years to come, you’ll be able to look back on what you were feeling at a formative time in life.
Return to Yourself
What are some hobbies you used to love but forgot about or haven’t had time
for recently? Rollerblading? Painting? Gymnastics? Remember the things that used to bring you the most joy and give yourself a space to enjoy them again.
Find a Friend
Make sure this friend is one who has the capacity to validate your feelings first. Validation and open conversation with a loved one can help you understand that you’re not alone in your experience.
words_ natalie santos. design_ keagan larkins.