At some point in our lives, we’ve all hit setbacks. We’ve all known the sting of disappointment.
It might be a redundancy, the breakdown of a relationship or even the loss of a loved one. But when these moments strike, our first reaction is nearly always 1 of sorrow, frustration or even grief. It’s also likely that in those moments, many of us will have been encouraged to look at things through a positive lens.
In the event of a redundancy, you might have been told that at least you have your health. With a breakup, something along the lines of everything happens for a reason or there being plenty more fish in the sea. We’re often told these things by well-meaning family and friends, and sometimes, it will help contextualise your situation. But more often than not, especially if the feelings are still fresh, it doesn’t. Sometimes you just want to feel sad or angry. But you’ll be endlessly encouraged to push those feelings down and feel positive instead.
This attitude – this perception that to feel negative emotions is, itself, a bad thing – is known as toxic positivity.
The damage of toxic positivity
There are certainly benefits to being an optimist, and when facing tragedy or disappointment, the long-term goal is surely to overcome it and return to a more positive state of mind. But toxic positivity takes this to the extreme. We’re not talking about simply stressing the importance of optimism. Toxic positivity is where we minimise and deny any trace of negative human emotion, anything that isn’t strictly positive.
Toxic positivity often comes from a good place. It might be that your friends are trying to help you, and that encouraging you to focus on the positives is the best way that they know how. But the truth is that toxic positivity can actually do more harm than good. In those moments when we feel low, we often just want to share how we feel and be supported in those feelings. Instead, we’ll find that – whether knowingly or otherwise – those feelings are dismissed, ignored or outright invalidated.
Not only is this upsetting when it happens, but it can actually make things worse. 1 study in 2018 tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health, and found that people who regularly avoid acknowledging difficult emotions can often feel worse as a result. It’s vital, therefore, that we understand the wider risks associated with trying to deny how we genuinely feel.
How to deal with toxic positivity
It can be really unpleasant to be on the receiving end of toxic positivity. That said, there are steps you can take under your steam to deal with your feelings in a healthier way. Perhaps the most important thing is not to deny your negative emotions. Burying negative feelings can be damaging in the long-term, but when accepted and managed, they can provide important information, some of which can even help to inform beneficial changes in your life.
Following that train of thought, don’t be afraid to push back. If you’re receiving some advice from a friend or family member that – however well-intentioned it might be – is making you feel worse, be honest with them. This doesn’t need to be a confrontation. In some cases, an open discussion about the support you’re looking for might be just as beneficial for those around you as it is for you. But you have every right to say if you aren’t yet ready to look at things in the way they’re portraying them.
Finally, be mindful of where you’re looking for support. Following “positive” social media accounts can seem quite an appealing way of coping with negative feelings, but for all of their good intentions, they can actually end up being harmful in their own right. If looking at this sort of ‘uplifting’ content leaves you with a sense of shame or guilt, it could very well be due to toxic positivity. If this sounds familiar, consider limiting your social media consumption and try instead to have open, honest conversations with people that you trust.
How to avoid imparting toxic positivity
While being on the receiving end of toxic positivity can be uncomfortable, it can also be pretty daunting to recognise signs of it in your own actions. We know that it often comes from a good place – namely, trying to help someone through what seems like a bad experience – but we need to be mindful of the importance of simply letting people feel the way that they do.
If a friend or family member is struggling with something, focus on listening to them and showing support, rather than leaping straight to a ‘look on the bright side’ attitude. Likewise, if someone comes to you directly to share a difficult experience or negative feelings, don’t try to shrug them off with toxic platitudes. Instead, reassure your friend or loved one that what they are feeling is normal and that you are there to listen.