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CommunityMental HealthIs it positivity… or toxic positivity?

We all go through tough times at some point in our lives and can be faced with various life challenges. From relationship problems, loss of loved ones, financial difficulties and health issues, to moving to a new home or country, or welcoming a newborn baby — all these significant life events can feel overwhelming for some of us and really stretch our coping abilities. Although it is normal and healthy to experience negative thoughts and emotional reactions during these...
Anthony NhlapoDecember 15, 202213 min
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Toxic positivityAshley Whitlatch/Unsplash

We all go through tough times at some point in our lives and can be faced with various life challenges.

From relationship problems, loss of loved ones, financial difficulties and health issues, to moving to a new home or country, or welcoming a newborn baby — all these significant life events can feel overwhelming for some of us and really stretch our coping
abilities. Although it is normal and healthy to experience negative thoughts and emotional reactions during these times, an inability to overcome these negative reactions can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. Responding constructively and holding an optimistic and confident outlook towards trying times can lower rates of depression, lead to improved emotional distress, tolerance and pain. This can, in turn, contribute to a good overall feeling of well-being.

However, there is a thin line between remaining positive during trying times and completely avoiding all negative thoughts, feelings and emotional reactions associated with the hardship. The latter is referred to as ‘toxic positivity’. It is a denial and rejection of all normal negative thoughts and emotions associated with difficult situations in favor of a happy and cheerful outlook, masking your true feelings. In fact, this toxic positivity is very common in our society today, summed-up well by the American musician, Bobby McFerrin’s well-known 1988 single Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Consider the lyrics: “when you worry, you make it double”, “cause when you worry, your face will frown, and that will bring everybody down”. In this context, worrying is seen as undesirable and harmful to others.

We always hear friends, family members, colleagues or even spiritual guides say things such as “don’t think about it, stay positive” or “I have been through this as well, and I know what you are going through” in an attempt to uplift others. Social media and the internet in general have limitless “feel good” and inspirational quotes to motivate people to be positive during trying times. Although these people are not ill-intentioned in their words, such statements can induce feelings of shame, guilt, and avoidance of normal emotional reactions to difficult challenges.

The sufferer is denied an opportunity to reflect and gain a deeper insight into their hardships, and, importantly, how to successfully navigate these feelings and learn from them in the future. The expectation is that they should just exude positivity at all cost and ignore any negativity. This is simply not possible and, crucially, not healthy.

Putting up a constant, positive facade can have long-term implications on one’s mental and physical health as well as your relationships. For example, continuous suppression of feelings can have a negative impact on one’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Dismissing one’s feelings can lead to a belief that no one cares about your needs, feelings, and thoughts. This in turn can lead to overthinking, internal feelings of restlessness, resentment, and anger towards those around you. An increase in psychological stress is associated with physical health problems. For example, there is a direct correlation between chronic stress and cardiovascular diseases, suppression of immune system and cognitive-related problems.

The other long-term implication of bottled emotions is seen in the nature and quality of relationships. Open and honest communication not only establishes healthy relationships, but also maintains them. So, it is not surprising that those who suppress their feelings and emotions in relationships feel invalidated, unheard, and disregarded. And this in turn leads to an unhealthy and toxic relationship in which people are unable to be themselves but conform to what suits one partner.

Common Examples of Toxic Positivity:

  1.  You have just lost your parent, but you feel a need to hide your true feelings because someone has just told you that “everything happens for a reason” and “you should be strong for your siblings”.
  2. Your relationship or marriage is in tatters, but you are trying hard to ignore the overwhelming emotions because you believe it is a sign of weakness to acknowledge these emotions and validate yourself.
  3. You have just been demoted at work and all you can think about are inspirational quotes such as “look for the silver lining” to make yourself feel good and suppress true feelings and emotions of perhaps rejection and disappointment.
  4. You feel ashamed and guilty for experiencing negative feelings following a business deal that fell through and as a result you always try to keep a smile on your face in an attempt to prove that you are doing well even though you know inside you are not.
  5. You deny that you are affected by an unsuccessful job interview that would have given you a better position and salary raise. You tell yourself that “At least I still have a job; it could be worse.”

Be positive and overcome toxic positivity

It is important to recognize that toxic positivity can be harmful, and that people should be encouraged to adopt a healthy and positive way of both validating and approaching life struggles. Here are some tips that can help us to remain positive and at the same time allow ourselves to experience negative emotions associated with hard times:

  1. Learn to accept that worry, anxiety, sadness and pain are all a normal part of human experience. Remember, it is okay not to be okay.
  2. You need to know that experiencing ambivalent feelings about situations is also normal. For example, you can be excited and at the same time anxious about welcoming a newborn baby or even accepting a new job.
  3. Journaling how you feel or talking to someone about your overwhelming emotions can help you gain a better perspective into your problems.
  4. Inspirational quotes can be good, but those that leave you feeling shame and guilt are not harmful. Avoid them if possible.
  5. Be watchful of people who invalidate your feelings by constantly trying to uplift you.

Some examples of toxic positivity:

Toxic Positivity  Positivity 
I just need to get over it, I will be fine. This is hard for me, and I have been through a lot. I believe I will overcome this.
Just be positive and stop whining.  I know that there is a lot that could go wrong, but likewise, lots could go right too, such as… 
Stop being so negative, only positive energy allowed. It is absolutely normal to have some negativity. Only be experiencing this, do we fully appreciate the positive things in life.
Just keep smiling. I’m human and it’s okay for me to cry and express sadness at times.
Everything happens for a reason.  It’s okay to feel sad when things do not go well. I will get through this but need some time to process the situation before I can move on.
Failure is not an option.  Failure is part of normal human growth and is when we learn the most from life.

 

Anthony Nhlapo

Anthony Nhlapo is a clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

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