Is It Gratitude Or Toxic Positivity? A Therapist Explains The Difference
Forcing yourself to "think positive" all the time isn't always healthy.
Notions of cultivating gratitude are all over the place these days. It's true, feeling gratitude can be a panacea for mental illness including plain old anxiety and depression. However, I get a bit uneasy about how gratitude and toxic positivity may intersect. The truth is cultivating gratitude can feel very out of reach at times—leading us to feel even worse because we can't access it. Therefore, we may be left trying to supplant that uncomfortable feeling with something positive instead. That's where toxic positivity comes into play.
Gratitude vs. toxic positivity.
Positive thinking is when you try to will good feelings or experiences into existence by focusing exclusively on the outcome you want. Although this approach can be helpful when working with excessive fear, it carries the potential to get toxic. If we use this technique to avoid or deny our genuine experiences, we run the risk of invalidating our feelings.
As I often tell my clients, we don't get to choose how we feel—but we do get to choose how we respond to those feelings. Toxic positivity is when we wish we were feeling something we aren't, and so we admonish ourselves to feel differently by saying to ourselves some version of "Think positive!"
If instead we cultivate curiosity (the first step in a true gratitude practice) about what we are feeling, then we are on the path toward transforming the negative emotion into something positive like gratitude or pride.
A different approach to gratitude.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I've noticed that gratitude actually comes after a process of surrendering to our painful emotions, not after willing in something positive.
We feel grateful when we can have a sip of water after a period of intense exercise and thirst. We experience pride when we successfully set healthy boundaries with family—a practice that comes only from acknowledging the harm that has and could come about when we haven't done this.
So often we resist experiencing aversive feelings. After all, we are hardwired for protection, even from the smallest perceived threat. It's hard to trust that those very emotions can actually be important—even good for us to feel. Each emotion has a function, an evolutionary purpose. Take anger, for example. It lets us know something is wrong, and it gives us energy to do something about it. If we suppress our anger, not only does it stay somewhere in our body, but we miss out on our anger's message. Gratitude can only be an experience we have after we allow ourselves to take in what our anger is trying to communicate.
For instance, let's say we discover someone has lied to us. This makes us feel angry, but we may be afraid of ruining the relationship, so we say nothing and bury the anger. If instead we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are angry, we get the message that this person may not be trustworthy. Or maybe we get an urge to investigate why they told the lie because there might be important information there for us to know. Once we surrender to feeling angry, we can get the message anger contains for us. And once we get the message, we feel grateful because we are now better off.
This may not sound like the gratitude practice you are familiar with, which is often about cultivating positive feelings.
Another example: Very often we seek feelings of gratitude when we experience envy—something so common in our consumer-driven society. Journaling about the gratitude we feel for the meal on our table, or the roof over our head, comes in response to allowing ourselves to acknowledge the pain of not having. Once we surrender to our envy, we can feel grateful for what we do have. It is by contrast that we develop appreciation for what is positive.
This is very different from what many people practice as "positive thinking."
The key point here is that in order to experience something positive such as gratitude, we must first be real with ourselves about what we are feeling. Whether it be grief, anger, envy, or shame, the only way out is through. Therefore, the first step in cultivating a positive outlook is to validate what we are actually feeling—no matter how painful or "wrong" it seems. When we can find the kernel of truth behind what we are feeling, we move toward understanding and acceptance. In order to shift toward gratitude, we must surrender. Only then can we give rise to the reward of gratitude, pride, or self-compassion.
The next time you are working to cultivate gratitude or any positive feeling, start by asking yourself, "What is getting in the way of me feeling grateful (or happy, or proud)?" Then, work with yourself as you would a friend who is struggling. Investigate with an open mind and gather information about how feeling angry or afraid or jealous makes sense. This is the practice of acceptance, which ultimately leads to true positivity.