Updated: Aug 17
Emotions are complicated. We rarely feel 100% of any emotion. Instead, what we tend to feel at any given moment about any given situation is complicated or nuanced. At best, our emotions are often difficult to understand. At worst, they are overwhelming.
Research has long established that emotional trauma (particularly childhood trauma) can be one of the causes of addiction. So it makes sense that emotional regulation and resolution are key factors in recovery. In fact, bottling up emotions is one of the early signs of relapse.
There are lots of ways that we can bottle up emotions, but one of the most problematic ways is forced positive thinking, or what is sometimes called the “good vibes only” approach to emotional regulation. You can use positive thinking to either adjust your perspective appropriately or set yourself up for emotional fallout because of unrealistic expectations.
Positive Thinking or Toxic Positivity?
It is important to establish what we mean when we talk about positive thinking. Verywell Mind defines positive thinking as “making the most of potential obstacles, trying to see the best in other people, and viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.” Positive thinking has been shown, for example, to help people with generalized anxiety disorder to decrease anxiety and worry.
However, most clinical professionals who advocate positive thinking would caution against using it as a blanket response to all life situations, including those involving “difficult” people or personal life choices that we regret. When you use positive thinking to paint a veneer over these situations so that you can’t actually see them, you are taking the “good vibes only” approach, or what professionals are increasingly calling toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity makes demands of yourself and others to be happy no matter what. It is less a perspective setter (as positive thinking can be in relation to anxiety) and more of a manipulation game that ends up shaming yourself or others with dogmatic statements like “happiness is a choice” or the stalwart approach of “it could always be worse.”
To be sure, there is an element of truth to these statements, but using them to stifle real emotions over difficult situations sets you up to try to bridge the disparity between what is real and what isn’t. In the cases of grief, trauma, or emotional loss, for example, this kind of approach can actually instigate negative coping, such as substance use.
How to Handle Real Human Emotion
Real human emotion can be messy, and the reality is that there is no quick fix or simple truism that will help us deal with some of the things life throws at us. One of the greatest generators of toxicity at all levels is social media. If you need to make changes in how you handle real emotion, start by taking a break from these platforms.
Here are some more principles to follow when you need to confront difficult emotions.
Be Honest With Yourself
Nothing beats honesty when it comes to dealing with emotions. Emotional honesty in this context does not mean saying whatever you feel like saying irrespective of people's feelings. It means simply recognizing what you are feeling.
Being honest about what you feel can be easier said than done. You may need to take some uninterrupted time for quiet reflection to figure out how you really feel about something. Or you may need a trusted friend to be a listening ear. Whatever the case, you can’t deal with reality until you know what reality is, so be honest with yourself.
Ask for Help When You Need It
When you are emotionally honest with yourself, you may discover things about your emotions that you don’t like. Maybe there are emotional behaviors that are hurting yourself or others. Don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to ask for help. Sometimes it takes a therapist or counselor to guide you through emotions that are difficult to untangle.
Make Changes to Find Meaning
Most people generally have two kinds of meaning: global meaning and situational meaning. As the names suggest, global meaning encompasses what we believe to be generally true while situational meaning is what we believe to be specifically true in any given situation.
The meaning-making therapeutic model encourages people to reconcile the two types of meaning if they find a contradiction between what they believe generally and specifically. A study of mothers living in Hong Kong who had a history of substance abuse found that this model enabled some mothers to make positive changes in their lives when they confronted the discrepancy between what they believed about motherhood generally and what their substance use conveyed in their particular situation.
Good Vibes When Appropriate
Of course, we should welcome positive emotion when it is genuine. One study found that emotional down-regulation (or dampening of positive emotions) created a greater risk of relapse among people in recovery.
As with all things in relation to our emotions, going too far to one extreme or another can be harmful. Seeing only “good vibes” in other people or situations is just as harmful as refusing to see any positive outcomes at all. But striking an emotional balance will benefit you and others close to you.
About the Author
Chris Raley is a content specialist for DetoxRehabs.net, which provides information about addiction recovery and mental health, helping people with addictions and their loved ones find the right treatment options.
Allina Health — Toxic positivity: When "good vibes" hurt mental health
Behaviour Research and Therapy — The power of positive thinking: Pathological worry is reduced by thought replacement in Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Cognitive Therapy and Research — Dampening of Positive Affect Predicts Substance Use During Partial Hospitalization
European Journal of Pharmacology — The dark side of emotion: the addiction perspective
Frontiers in Psychology — Meaning-Making of Motherhood Among Mothers With Substance Abuse Problems
Verywell Mind — The Power of Positive Thinking
Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine — Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery