Raffy Castillo, 36, is known for his big smile and positive attitude. He’s based in San Juan, La Union, a popular surf town in the Philippines, and thinks living there adds to his chill, positive persona. Castillo feels like people rely on him for advice, so he needs to keep a happy face. But it’s not always good vibes.
“I would say I’ve been guilty of promoting toxic positivity most of my adult life,” Castillo told VICE.
Filipinos are known for being happy, hospitable people. We’re often lauded for our resilience and positive outlook amid challenges. Like Castillo, many Filipinos often find themselves putting on a happy face, sweeping negative thoughts under a rug, and marching on with their lives—even when doing so makes matters worse. It’s something we’re taught in school and at home—directly and indirectly—from a very young age. Of course, now, we have a name for it: toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity “refers to maintaining positive thoughts or emotions to the point of ignoring negative emotions altogether, or just thinking positive but not initiating ways to address an issue,” Rea Villa, a psychologist based in Manila, told VICE.
According to Villa, we can see toxic positivity in action when a person tells someone to “look at the bright side” after a traumatic experience, like an accident or loss of a loved one. It’s also present when we brush off someone’s concerns and say that “things could be worse,” as well as when we tell people to get over their grief and that “everything happens for a reason.”
“While we may not intend it, such statements can lead people to feel invalidated,” Villa said.
Castillo, who said he enjoys helping others, agreed.
“I realized that telling people ‘everything will work out in the end,’ or ‘other people have it worse,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason,’ makes them feel guilty or ashamed about their feelings. They hide these feelings, which will cause more negativity, and then it becomes a never-ending cycle,” he said.
Citing a study published in the Asian Journal of Social Psychology, Villa said Filipinos have resilient and humorous personalities set in a collectivistic culture that thrives on maintaining social bonds.
“Unfortunately, this in itself can encourage toxic positivity, because Filipinos can advise each other to think positive and keep smiling despite the challenges being faced,” Villa said, adding that this can then lead Filipinos to suppress and even stigmatize natural emotional responses that need to be processed.
“I used to struggle with toxic positivity in the sense that I would downplay and invalidate my own struggles because I knew I had it better than others who were worse off. It took me a long time to realize that counting my blessings wouldn’t make my problems disappear,” said 26-year-old business owner Cara Paguio.
Paguio, who’s based in Pasig City, said that that way of thinking was a band-aid solution that distracted her from dealing with her own issues.
“[My] sweeping my problems under the rug did not end well. It was just added pressure on top of the external stress I was also dealing with at the time. Looking back, I wonder why I chose to invalidate myself and my emotions, when there were others who were already doing that to me.”
She acknowledges that there are many political and societal factors that set plenty of Filipinos up for failure, so she finds those who are able to overcome tough scenarios admirable.
“The problem is when this struggle is glorified to distract from the root problems. Filipinos tend to focus on the good and sweep the bad news under the rug. I don’t blame our society for trying to stay positive in such bleak present times, but nothing will change if all we do is praise the good, and not criticize the bad,” she said.
“I don’t blame our society for trying to stay positive in such bleak present times, but nothing will change if all we do is praise the good, and not criticize the bad.”
For yoga teacher Joshua Webb, 31, toxic positivity is a kind of denial. Webb, who’s based in Laguna, a province southeast of Metro Manila, said that toxic positivity prevents him from seeing situations the way they actually are.
“[When that happens] I lose out on the true opportunity to mitigate the root of the problem, because ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced,’” Webb said, quoting James Baldwin.
He added that he deals with negative emotions by cultivating a mindset of “radical acceptance.” Webb described radical acceptance as a person’s ability to face and unpack challenging emotions and situations as they happen.
“A lot of times, we try to move away from these uncomfortable emotions and we’re not able to resolve [them] because we move away from them, so radical acceptance is about first accepting them as they are, allowing ourselves to process and feel these emotions, and then moving forward,” Webb said.
Shay Tan, 26, a brand manager from Quezon City, said another aspect of Filipino culture that often encourages toxic positivity is the importance placed on family.
“Disappointing family members, and therefore failure, is frowned upon. It makes it difficult for children to openly express their negative emotions to parents because of the pressures to succeed,” Tan said.
In her high-pressure career, however, Tan has come to understand that failure and negative feelings are part of the package, and now differentiates what she calls “healthy positivity” from toxic positivity. According to her, while a person with toxic positivity is dismissive, healthy positivity accepts negative situations and uses them to grow.
“Sometimes, a difficult situation might not ever be OK, and that’s fine. I believe that things don’t always get better, we just become stronger,” Tan said.
“Sometimes, a difficult situation might not ever be OK, and that’s fine.”
Even Filipinos who haven’t heard the term “toxic positivity” might still experience it.
“I’ve heard of toxic in a negative sense, but not yet toxic positivity,” said 26-year-old Dok Rosaceña.
Rosaceña is based in El Nido, Palawan, and was a cook before the pandemic shut tourism down. He said that when he feels negative emotions, he doesn’t think he should talk about them. “They should be hidden, or apologized for,” he said.
Approaching his negative emotions this way has led Rosaceña to simply laugh about things that might require more serious responses.
“I feel like some things are happy first, but when I think about it, I realize they’re actually not,” he said.
So how should people deal with toxic positivity?
According to Villa, one way is to change how we think about “negative” emotions.
“We need to accept our negative emotions and understand that they are a normal part of the human experience. We can do this by viewing them not as something to be intimidated by, but as signals to our minds and bodies about a certain situation.”
“We need to accept our negative emotions and understand that they are a normal part of the human experience.”
People can also change the way they think about happiness, Villa said.
“Happiness can be seen as a state of mind, one that thrives in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ circumstances. In other words, we can appreciate life, while understanding there are things we cannot control.”
She added that another way to deal with negative emotions is by labeling and talking about them, to make these issues feel less overwhelming.
Villa said people should focus on validating others’ experiences, instead of forcing them to stay positive.
“A heartfelt, validating statement such as, ‘I hear you and I empathize with your situation right now, but please know that you are not alone,’ is much better than giving a comment like, ‘Just think positive,’” she said.
Villa said these shifts in mindset need to be accompanied by action in order to make lasting changes. Activities like introspection through journaling and talking to loved ones are great ways to acknowledge and process personal challenges.
Castillo said he’s learned the same.
“[My] biggest learning in this pandemic is accepting that all feelings are valid. It’s ok to feel fear, pain, frustration, anger, and disappointment. What’s important is taking time to step back, process these feelings, and identify the roots.”
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