When Positivity Becomes Toxic

I am a great believer in a positive mindset and the benefits that can bring. But is it reasonable or even feasible that we expect ourselves and others to see the bright side in every situation all the time?

With the rise of the 'positive vibes only' culture, we are bombarded with messages that tell us that the only way to deal with any difficult situation is with positivity and a smile, But can there be such a thing as too much positivity? The simple answer is yes and it can become toxic.

There are many benefits to a positive outlook when balanced with the understanding and acknowledgment of all the other emotions we experience. Positivity can be a powerful motivator. It can also increase self-confidence, energy levels, creativity and physical health. But it can also be too much of a good thing.

Toxic positivity is pretending that everything is ok when really it isn't. It can be often reinforced by well-meaning friends and family who tell you to "stay positive" or to look on the bright side because "things could be worse". Things could always be worse, but that does not lessen the distress you are feeling right now over your current situation.

This belief that simply changing your mindset or being grateful for what you still have will magically transform your life and take your problems away is at the very least unrealistic. At it's most damaging, toxic positivity teaches us that negative emotions are wrong and are to be avoided. Toxic positivity invalidates a whole range of human emotions that are a normal part of life. 

When you don't acknowledge  your feelings and start burying them, you are doing more harm than good. You are putting your mental health at risk. Suppressing your emotions is counterintuitive to maintaining good mental health. Studies have shown that the denial and avoidance of difficult emotions increases the risks of anxiety and depression. It has also been associated with sleep disturbances, substance abuse, eating disorders, increased risk taking behaviours, panic attacks and even PTSD. The irony is that when you identify and address these emotions as they arise, they are more likely to be transient and of a shorter duration.

Another side-effect of toxic positivity? Failure to act and problem solve. The 'everything will be okay' mentality where you believe that things will just work themselves out is a lovely distraction but does not actually solve the issue at hand. You need to take action to keep moving forward. If you lose your job, things are likely to be ok, but only if you get out there and take action to find other employment or sources of income.  If you're facing a health issue, things can improve, but only if you seek treatment. Positive thinking, whilst helpful, is not the answer to every problem.

With so much emphasis on positivity (especially on social media) of late it can be difficult to avoid but there are ways that you can prevent yourself falling into the trap:

  • On social media, remember you are often looking at someones highlight reel and not necessarily every aspect of their life. If scrolling through someone else's feed leaves you feeing less than, then it is probably time to hit the unfollow button.
  • When you find yourself experiencing a difficulty emotion, acknowledge it without shame or self-recrimination.
  • Watch how to speak to yourself. Instead of saying "What is wrong with me? I shouldn't feel this way!" try something like "this is a normal response to ....... It is ok to feel this way".
  • Watch how you speak to others. Whilst I'm sure you're intentions are good, statements like "you've got so many other things to be happy about" and "you'll be fine" are not helpful. Try instead validating the other person's feelings with "I understand that this is hard for you right now but I know you can move through it'.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - you've got to feel all the feels and you've got to let others feel all their feels too. The highs, the lows, the good, the bad. And you need to feel them without judgement or shame. Your are not weak. You are not lacking. You are human. There is nothing wrong with you for not feeling upbeat and happy every moment of every day. Sometimes it's okay to not be okay. 

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