Is Toxic Positivity Gaslighting?
Let’s look at some famous examples of gaslighting to find out if these two are one in the same
by Alicia Butler, July 25, 2022
One of my favorite topics is dealing with Big Emotions.
There’s no way I could focus on a year of fun without talking about the not-so-good stuff, too.
To truly have fun, we all need to deal with our sh*t. If we don’t, are we truly having fun at all? Or are we just trying to avoid our negative feelings by sugarcoating them?
Also known as toxic positivity, this obsession with sugarcoating may seem harmless. But repressing emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, this behavior can actually amplify negative feelings.
But is this toxic positivity gaslighting?
How can we deal with negative emotions, process them, and let them go — without stuffing them deeper down inside?
What is gaslighting?
The term was coined in the 1944 film Gaslit, which explored themes of emotional abuse and manipulation.
Telling someone they’re “crazy” for how they feel, don’t deserve to feel their feelings, or accusing another of being “too sensitive” are all examples of gaslighting.
A famous example of gaslighting was when Martha Mitchell, the wife of U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, was accused of lying, delusions, and drug addiction, after testifying she was kidnapped by her husband and other members of the Nixon administration after the Watergate scandal.
The term the “Martha Mitchell” effect is used by psychologists to describe patients who were told they were delusional or paranoid when in fact the events they were describing were real and accurate.
But what is toxic positivity, and is toxic positivity gaslighting? Let’s take a look at the effects of gaslighting first to see what happens when others encourage you to doubt your feelings.
Effects of Gaslighting
When you’re consistently being told to doubt your own feelings and intuition, you may start to wonder if you can trust yourself.
People who are continually gaslighted often report worrying they can’t trust their own feelings and experiencing difficulting trusting others.
Just some of the negative effects of gaslighting include:
- Self-confidence issues
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of trust
- Increased isolation
Constant gaslighting can lead to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
Dealing with loneliness on its own can be a struggle. But when loneliness is paired with the inability to trust others? It can feel debilitating.
What is toxic positivity?
Some examples of toxic positivity include:
“Everything happens for a reason”
“Don’t worry, be happy.”
“Let’s try to see the positive side of this.”
And while dwelling on negative emotions (also known as rumination) isn’t helpful, stuffing them down and refusing to deal with them can be just as harmful.
We have feelings for a reason.
Psychologist, Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, says that emotions are simply information. Instead of seeing them as good or bad, we can use them as clues to discover our values and determine what we need more of (and what we’re not getting enough of).
Good feelings signal when things are going well, and negative feelings are information too. They just signal when something is off. When we ignore these feelings, we can’t address them. And we can’t clean up a mess we refuse to see in the first place.
So, is toxic positivity gaslighting? Possibly.
We can’t answer questions like, What is fun? What makes me happy? Or What brings me joy? If we’re spending so much energy on fake happiness all the time.
Effects of Toxic Positivity
We can’t deal with what we cannot address.
Toxic positivity doesn’t fix a problem; it’s a quick fix to avoid feeling negative emotions. Instead of feeling discomfort, you end up replacing those feelings with overly positive ones.
But those negative feelings don’t truly go away. Yes, they’re “hidden” by the positive emotions — but what we avoid often has a way of coming back to find us.
Avoiding your emotions can lead to:
Amongst other feelings and mental health conditions.
But asking yourself why you feel embarrassed can help you get to the bottom of your discomfort. Sometimes simply noticing a feeling is enough to lessen its pain.
Though it’s painful to deal with these feelings, trying to replace them with positive ones can hurt even more. And telling ourselves that we’re not feeling sad, angry, or embarrassed is a form of gaslighting — especially when we’re clearly feeling those emotions.
Wait, shouldn’t we avoid ruminating on negativity?
Yes! Ruminating about feelings may also be unhelpful.
Unfortunately, our brains are hardwired to focus on problems so we can avoid them in the future. But constantly focusing on them can also be harmful. Rumination can lead to depression and decrease hope.
There’s a delicate balance between acknowledging feelings, getting curious about them, and obsessing over them.
Is toxic positivity gaslighting?
So is toxic positivity gaslighting? In a nutshell, yes it can be.
Since gaslighting is when someone leads you to question your reality and toxic positivity is being happy even when you’re not, someone who makes you feel as though you should be happy (during a time when it’s normal to feel sad) may be gaslighting you.
Toxic positivity is gaslighting — wrapped in a bow and covered in chocolate.
Is toxic positivity gaslighting? 5 Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity
Since toxic positivity is gaslighting, we want to try to avoid it. But how can we make these changes when we’re so fixated on feeling good?
How can we avoid toxic positivity without boarding a train to an eternal negative town?
1. Feel Your Feelings
One of the first steps I took to stop using toxic positivity to avoid my feelings was to simply feel them in the first place.
There was a time when I would automatically try to make myself feel better or distract myself whenever I’d feel something “bad”. Instead of “trying” or “doing”, I would simply just feel.
We as a society are taught to “pull it together” or “figure out our sh*t” too often. In fact, a lot of issues are caused by trying to “do” when we really should be trying to get curious.
When we don’t feel our emotions for long stretches, they can be really intense when we finally let them in.
Feeling our feelings — both good and bad — can help us notice them without judgment.
When I was struggling to feel my feelings at the moment, making lists of daily highs and lows helped get me to get in the habit of feeling them or noticing them at all.
If you’re bored with simple gratitude lists, gratitude journal prompts might help you get started.
Savoring my feelings has really helped me feel all of them. What is savoring? It’s the act of being totally mindful of thoughts, feelings, and emotions in any given situation.
2. Get Comfy With Negative Emotions
It was hard for me to get comfortable with negative emotions without trying to gaslight myself with toxic positivity at first.
Let’s face it: negative emotions kind of suck. They hurt and feel gross. Feelings of embarrassment might even show up.
Getting comfy with negative emotions isn’t about sugarcoating them. It’s about allowing them to happen. Feeling them without turning away from them too much or dwelling on them.
In fact, this may look different for everyone.
When I first started allowing myself to feel my feelings, I would just name the feeling: sadness, anger, fear, worry, doubt. But what works for me might not work for you.
3. Speak Your Truth
One of the biggest challenges I faced when I first started dealing with my emotions was actually speaking my own truth.
If toxic positivity is gaslighting, then the antidote was being radically honest with myself.
Instead of telling myself, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” or, “I’m okay,” I would ask myself how I really felt. “Do I feel okay?”
Sometimes the answer was yes. But if I didn’t feel okay, I gave myself permission to be honest about it. If someone asked how I was doing, I’d be honest. “I’ve been better. I’m so tired. I’ve had a rough morning.”
No, not everyone wants to actually know the answer to that question. But answering it truthfully (without unloading on them) helped me get in touch with my real feelings.
I also realized that I often couldn’t label my feelings. I just didn’t have the vocabulary for it.
I recommend reading Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown if you want to accurately label your feelings. According to Brown, we consistently mislabel our feelings — and when we do so, we can’t actually deal with them.
4. Notice Crutches
There are a few crutches I use to avoid my feelings.
Playing games on my phone, scrolling through Instagram, watching TV, checking email, and listening to podcasts are all ways I avoid feeling Big Emotions. To be honest, I see nothing wrong with doing this from time to time — especially since I spent so much of my life avoiding them.
Sometimes we need a break from our own sh*t. And that’s okay.
But when I find myself drinking a lot of wine, doom scrolling, or stuck in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, calls “junk flow”, I’m usually trying to avoid something.
Junk flow is when you find yourself in a state of “flow” that’s not productive. When I say productive I don’t mean “busy work” or “getting stuff done”. I mean it’s just not supporting your happiness or mental health. When it comes self-care and productivity, you can have both, you just need to be cognizant of why you want to be productive in the first place.
Junk flow is when you’re hour eight into a Lost marathon, trying to convince yourself to just go to bed or take a shower or something and not even enjoying the show at all.
Again, noticing junk flow is information. Getting stuck in it isn’t good or bad. It just is another state of being.
Notice it, feel it, and let that sh*t go.
There’s a point when you just need to let it all go. Sit in it, just don’t swim in it.
5. Avoid Rumination
I’ll admit it: I’m a big ruminator.
The tough part of rumination for me is that I actually get something out of it. I find that ruminating and allowing my mind to run free for about 45 minutes after something triggering happens can help uncover insights.
Yet, that’s not the case for everyone, and not all rumination is enlightening.
There’s a point when you just need to let it all go. Sit in it, just don’t swim in it.
Sadly, I don’t have a quick and easy fix for rumination. For me, letting go of obsessive thoughts is a life-long process.
When rumination becomes unproductive, I simply allow myself a set time to dwell on it and then I have a “chat” with the thoughts.
“I know you’re just trying to protect me. But obsessing about this is making things worse, not better. I need to let you go — just for now.”
Then, I visualize “cutting” the thought. Some people visualize the thought in a bubble and “popping” it.
I also try to remind myself that when I let go of a problem or stop trying to solve it, sometimes the answer just comes to me. Like how some people get their best ideas in the shower.
Is toxic positivity gaslighting? Yes, but we don’t need to lie to ourselves to be happy. In fact, we may just be able to be happier if we face our Big Emotions, head on.