Toxic Positivity

Getting into a habit of affirmative thoughts and minimising negative self-talk is undoubtedly a healthy thing to do, and will have positive effects on our mind and body. Gaible and Hait (2005) said “positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups and institutions”. We spend so much of our lives doing things, ultimately, to make us feel good.

[If you think about the things you strive for, then take a minute to keep on asking yourself the question “why/what for?” (this technique is called laddering). You’ll find the answer is something to do with being happy/feeling good/finding meaning. That’s ultimately what we’re all striving for - happiness.]

Happiness means something different for all of us. Everyone will have a different path to this same goal and the end results will always look different for each person. If we can shift into more positive thought patterns, really work out what happiness means to us, we’ll be well on the right track.

All of this is real, evidence-based positivity. But there is a growing culture at the moment which I think perpetuates a darker side to positivity. You might have recognised it already; the overuse of ineffective platitudes. There’s a lot of it on social media, especially at the moment. Here there is a blanket assumption that happiness and positivity is the same for everyone, and the idea that we should just be able to change how we feel the moment someone tells us to.

At a certain point, this type of “positivity” becomes a silencing tool. Our voices are silenced by it, it perpetuates shame and minimises authentic human experiences. Have you ever tried to tell someone about something that’s worrying/upsetting/difficult for you, only to be met with “well, everything happens for a reason”, “it’ll all work out fine”, “you have to think positively” or any sentence that starts with “well, at least…”. If you’ve come away from a conversation feeling dismissed or like you’ve been a burden to someone by sharing feelings that aren’t shiny and happy - you’ve probably been affected by toxic positivity.

These phrases are often shared by well-meaning people; especially on social media. The thing is, sharing those vapid, ineffective phrases on social media means that whole swathes of people absorb these careless, empty words and probably feel much worse for it. When people gloss over something human with “it’ll all work out” or “happiness is a choice”, it totally invalidates our (very valid and real) experience.

By rejecting all things not-so-shiny, we write off a pretty significant portion of the whole range of normal human emotions. An inherent part of life is struggle. We need the struggle in order to feel joy in its absence. The feelings that come with these struggles help us process and understand ourselves. Avoiding or ignoring difficult emotions means we lose so much information - about ourselves, how we process, what we’re affected by, how we work in general and about the situations we are in. Without feelings, how do we know what we’re scared of; what we perceive as a threat? Fear is felt for a reason. When we acknowledge our fear, we can choose what to do with it. If you’re sad about saying goodbye to someone, then that person and the experiences you’ve had with them have probably been meaningful to you. If you’re terrified of giving that work presentation, you probably care about how you’re perceived by others. These don’t always need to be evaluated or changed, but it’s useful to know them.

This dismissal of information in the form of emotions is being perpetuated by social media users everywhere and it’s really important that it stops. I want to know what upsets me, and how I process grief. I like to recognise when I’m anxious and talk it all out until I feel like I’ve unpacked it. Often, I still may not know what to do with that, but at least I know it. It’s out there. It’s valid. I don’t need to figure it all out right now, but I’ve got my eye on it.

Importantly, difficult feelings don’t just go away. We can’t paint over them with “the bright side” and think we’ve handled our feelings (or anyone else’s). They will grow, they’ll shift around. If they do leave your conscious mind, they’re only left bubbling away in your unconscious mind and they will find a way out. Once they do, it can be very difficult to distinguish where these difficult feelings/behaviours are coming from… because seemingly they come out of nowhere then, and aren’t related to anything. Following the thread back to where this feeling/behaviour/thought pattern was activated from here can be very difficult because we separated from them when someone told us to “cheer up” (i.e. dismissed our feelings).

On top of the dangers of suppressed feelings and the missed opportunities to know ourselves and the world, toxic positivity provides a breeding ground for shame. Brené Brown has taught us that shame feeds off of judgement, secret and silence. All three are present when toxic positivity is. Shame is crippling; damaging to our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Strong feelings of shame activate the sympathetic nervous system, forcing us into a prolonged state of the flight/fight/freeze reaction. We know that this is damaging not only to our mental health but actually to our immune system as well.

Being a healthy person involves being aware of ourselves. Ideally, our sense of self; our sense of how we present ourselves to others; and the reality of how we come across to others, will all be completely aligned. This all involves being conscious of ourselves and others, and how we relate to the world. So, I’m giving myself permission to feel all my feelings. Give yourself permission to feel everything too. If you need to talk about your feelings (as we very often do) in order to get a better grasp on them or process them more fully, find someone who will listen to you to understand, not just to respond. If all else fails, send me an email.

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