In the debate between resilience vs. toxic positivity, there is some blurring of the lines happening.
I thought it would be a good idea to define Resilience and Toxic Positivity. It worries me that I’m more frequently seeing examples of people struggling to get a foothold, utilizing resilience strategies and being told in response that they’re engaging in “toxic positivity”.
Resilience is not toxic positivity. I’ll tell you why.
First of all, toxic positivity truly exists and it is something we should seek to avoid. Psychological terms tend to fall into the fast moving currents of fads, just like everything else. Suddenly everyone’s using the term gaslighting, for example, without everyone understanding what it means. Or we start to see the overuse of a spiritual concept like karma–misunderstood in pop culture as being synonymous with punishment (it actually isn’t about payback at all).
While no doubt this tendency has the potential to harm, I don’t think it’s all bad. I believe we’ve been so collectively in the dark around deep psychological processes that as the arc of evolution expands, there is an overcorrection that tends to take place. We swing from not being aware that gaslighting exists to suddenly seeing everything and everyone as gaslighting. The goal is to integrate these deep psychological teachings into our mainstream culture. But until then, it’s natural that a few terms may get overused, and even misused.
This brings us to resilience vs. toxic positivity.
What is Toxic Positivity?
The definition of Toxic Positivity is when a person mandates to themself and others that we must act, at all times, as though nothing is wrong. The focus stays glued to what “positivity” should look like, and all processing of so-called “negative” emotions is blocked. Maybe they force themselves to be productive regardless of how sick they are, sad they are, or injured they are~and they expect the same from you.
Somebody who is mired in toxic positivity refuses to discuss their shadow, or what they perceive to be “too dark”, and meanwhile their subconscious processes are creating havoc in their life. They fear that if they evaluate a darker thought, they will become the darker thought, rather than understand that taming it means bringing it into the light of consciousness. With toxic positivity, when something happens in life that causes a person psychological pain, the tools most often reached for are denial, avoidance, escapism, and delusion.
So, how does this differ from Resilience?
The field of Positive Psychology is mainly responsible for the groundbreaking research done in the area of psychological resilience, and even that comes with its fair share of misunderstanding. The field of Positive Psychology is the scientific & humanistic study of what tends to make us happy. It turns out that there is a core collection of circumstances that most people tend to respond to positively. It’s not “prioritizing positivity at all cost” which is something I actually heard recently from a cognitive behavioral therapist on Instagram. (That is such a gross misunderstanding of the field, I can’t believe they’ve ever even tried to educate themselves about it.)
What exactly is Resilience?
Resilience is when you fully recognize an adverse situation, but accept that painful feelings are as natural as joyful feelings. Resilience means taking the time to determine what you need, and designing your life to meet those needs when possible. It’s having the ability to hold more than one perspective at a time, rather than labeling a circumstance as all good or all bad.
Resilience, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. It means learning to psychologically adjust to the external and internal demands that life tends to throw at us.
Resilience is a learned set of skills.
Resilience requires practice, commitment, and consistency. It is the process of changing our brains–and as a result our behaviors and responses–through neuroplasticity. It is the keystone, the bridge, between being pummeled by the emotional waves of High Sensitivity in an often insensitive world, and learning to be a Highly Functional Highly Sensitive Person who channels sensitivity as a super-power.
As Highly Sensitive People, the journey of our lifetime is to learn to not shy away from pain. It’s about learning to dialogue with it, to learn its wisdom for us. It’s about taking the term “negative” out of the equation entirely, when talking about emotion. Because there is no such thing.
But if somebody tells you that you must worship at the altar of pain, you must dwell on it, bury yourself in it, refuse to walk forward because you feel it–or else you’re engaging in “toxic positivity”–well, I hope now you can teach them the difference.
When I was a teenager my mother died, and I lost everything I knew.
On my own and totally independent by age nineteen, I felt the sting of toxic positivity–“Get over it. Just smile more.You’re a downer to be with.” Yet somehow the spirit of Resilience moved in and never left my side. It kept me safe. It guided me like an adoptive guardian.
Today I go full Mama Bear when I see Highly Sensitive People trying hard to do their psychological work, to heal, to nourish their spirits, to create new neural pathways…and misinformation elbows its way in to interfere with that sacred process.
Did anything about this article hit home for you today? If so, please let me know in the comments and we can continue the discussion.