The term toxic positivity has gained popularity in recent years, referring to moments when people responded to others’ struggles with surface-deep assurances and cliched phrases such as, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “Have you tried yoga?”
But there is a similar, if lesser-known, concept that is more inner-directed: emotional perfectionism.
While we usually think of a perfectionist as someone who holds themselves to a high standard for how they look, behave or work, emotional perfectionists hold themselves to a similar standard regarding how they feel. Rather than encouraging others to look on the bright side (toxic positivity), they expect themselves to be unfailingly upbeat.
“It’s really when you have an emotion about emotion and you’re suppressing what you have labeled the bad emotion,” said Annie Hickox, a psychologist who also holds a PhD in clinical neuroscience. “Emotional perfectionism often follows a script of: ‘We shouldn’t do this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be mad about that,’ ‘I shouldn’t be angry,’ ” added Hickox, who coined the term in 2016.
Hickox believes emotional perfectionism could be an unrecognized source of anxiety, based on experience with her patients. “They’ll say, ‘Oh no, I’m not a perfectionist.’ But you can find thoughts where they’re holding themselves up to a very high standard,” she said.
Toxic positivity and emotional perfectionism have the same underlying root cause: a discomfort with other people’s negative emotions. Vrinda Kalia, a psychology professor at Miami University who studies perfectionism and emotional expression, said that expecting life — yours or others’ — to be “awesome all the time” is extremely debilitating, because it ignores reality. “This is not what life is like.”
There are several reasons people develop perfectionistic traits. Some are simply born with higher expectations of themselves and the world around them, while others become that way through a mixture of upbringing and cultural influences.
Nevertheless, perfectionism, including emotional perfectionism, can prevent us from building and maintaining satisfying relationships. For example, “in a married couple, where one person is more dark and pessimistic and the other person is constantly buoying them up, that could spill into toxic positivity,” Hickox said, “because one person doesn’t feel heard or listened to because they just get this positive persona, and the underlying message to the other person is, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way.’”
Hickox says emotional perfectionism can also arise from positive reflexes such as protectiveness, where people want to make sure their friends and loved ones don’t have to suffer the discomfort of unpleasant emotions, such as anger or sadness. This, too, tends to backfire. “It doesn’t protect other people, because that’s not real life to always be positive. In the short term, it can make us feel better, because we’re putting on this persona, but in the long term, it can be quite damaging and self-destructive,” she said.
“Emotional perfectionism is more likely to happen for women, because they have been socialized not to express their complete selves,” said Catherine McKinley, an associate professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work who studied gender differences in emotional expression. She said that, although women were allowed to manifest a wider range of emotions than men, they also felt more pressure to self-regulate them.
Several studies have shown that women have more perfectionistic tendencies than men and have exhibited higher stress levels. They also report experiencing more self-critical thoughts and having higher expectations of themselves.
But no matter your gender, if you realize you might be an emotional perfectionist, these tips can help you battle that tendency.
Remember: There are no good and bad emotions. “There’s no such thing as good and bad emotions, just like there’s no good and bad food. We can have problems with them, but it’s not the food itself that’s the problem. It’s how we handle it,” Hickox said. One approach is to learn how to develop what she called “emotional tolerance,” or the strength to deal with all sorts of emotions, including unpleasant ones.
We all have an “ugly” side, but that’s what makes us human, Kalia said. “Expressing all parts of yourself allows you to be your whole person. The best situation would be to accept it, to say, ‘Okay, I got angry. That’s the angry part of me. And that’s okay. I also have a soft and tender side to me, and I can show that to you next,’ ” she said.
Be mindful. According to Hickox, mindfulness is a great way to develop emotional tolerance, because it allows us to stay in the moment. “Feel the emotion,” she said. “What is it telling you, and what’s the story behind it?” For example, you can ask yourself: “What do I feel like when I’m shutting myself down? What was I feeling before I shut myself down?” Hickox said.
Being mindful in the moment also allows us to catch ourselves or others slipping into emotional perfectionism or toxic positivity.
Be open about your needs and emotions. McKinley said it is important to be clear about what sort of support you expect from others, but also to give people room to grow. “We’re all learning together,” she said. “Everyone gets to be a full human being.”
This openness can be crucial for women whose needs have been brushed aside. But it’s also important for men who feel as if they are not allowed to express any emotions except for anger. “If you feel like you can’t express emotions, then that feels like suffocating over time,” she said.
Exercise emotional flexibility. Just as we need to exercise our bodies to maintain physical flexibility, we need to exercise our feelings to maintain emotional flexibility. We need to get beyond a “rigid construction of emotional expression” that labels some emotions as good and some as bad, Kalia said. “Inflexibility is the problem.”
Let go of control. Understanding that nothing is guaranteed can help reduce perfectionistic tendencies, because “one of the things a perfectionist wants is control. They want to be able to control the situation. And the truth is, we have so little control,” Kalia said.
Learn from negative emotions. Although emotional perfectionists don’t want to experience negative emotions, Kalia said, they have a very important function. For example, “if you have a negative interaction with someone, don’t ignore that feeling,” she said. “It’s a very important signal from your body and your brain that something is wrong.”
Reach out for support. Deciding you need to change can be extremely isolating, especially for emotional perfectionists, who tend to push people away to protect themselves from experiencing vulnerability. But in the long run, this can hurt them. “We can’t live alone. It’s not good for us. We all need support and other people around us,” Kalia said.
It’s unrealistic, however, to expect just one person — be it a spouse or a friend — to fulfill all of our needs. “It’d probably be most healthy if everyone has their own support networks that they can rely upon beyond their immediate partners and families,” McKinley said.
Olga Mecking is a writer living in the Netherlands and the author of “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.”