During this pandemic or even otherwise, how many times have we seen phrases like “Everything will be okay”, “Good vibes only”, “Think happy thoughts” “Don’t be so negative” or “Look on the bright side”? While this may be helpful and well-intended for some to keep a positive mindset but always encouraging one to look on the bright side without acknowledging what one is going through or ignoring the complete range of emotions, this may be an indication of toxic positivity. It is not an issue when individuals are genuinely happy and positive, it only becomes problematic when they are forced to believe in the positive aspects even when the situation does not call for it or when they need to give attention to their distress and get a need met. When one has a problem or negative emotion by disregarding the issue at hand, it gives the impression that it is a problem not worth addressing which thereby shuts off the prospect of future contemplation about it.
Samara Quintero and Jamie Long (2019) present some common signs of toxic positivity:
Pretending or using a façade to make one accept that everything is okay
Minimizing and dismissing other people’s experiences by using phrases like “you’ll be fine.”
Experiencing guilt for feeling negative emotions and not being ‘positive.’
Demonizing, attacking, shaming, humiliating, punishing or invalidation of negative feelings (frustration, sadness, anxiety in other ways
Ignoring or shrugging off one’s feelings altogether by saying “that’s the way it is” or “it is just how it is.”
This culture can advance itself in two ways: one where individuals direct toxic positivity towards others by telling them to ‘be happy’ as a solution to some ongoing problem. It probably occurs when these people are afraid to address the negative emotions and thereby encourage it in others as well; the other where one portrays oneself as happy when they are actually not. Such dialogues can be easily seen all throughout social media too, which continually seems to propagate notions of chronic happiness.
The famous dialogue from Three Idiots which says “all is well” is a testament to it. It provides an illusion to the person that even when things are not going well, they can beat on with a positive mindset. This may work in the short term while providing the individual, motivation to go on in the present; however, subconsciously and physiologically they may be building up tension and symptoms of issues that are left unprocessed. One needs to remember that when they are stressed and choose to not address it, they increase their chance of neglecting their well-being. It is the same parallel with any physiological issues one may be experiencing, such as a cut which is bleeding. One might dismiss it while ignoring the first aid the wound needs; however, neglecting it will not make it disappear.
How is it detrimental?
While striving to cultivate a healthy and positive mind, people are pushing the idea that the only way to deal with negative emotions is by putting it in a positive limelight. When this happens, they are essentially proposing to replace negative emotions with positive ones. This can promote the suppression of negative emotions in a way that hinders the individual from processing those them in a healthy manner.
1. Taking an example in case, if an individual is greatly angered by the actions of another person and are asked to suppress it and think about the times when the other person was good to them will lead them to create a hindrance in a healthy communicative alley. In such a case where the individual keeps suppressing the anger by putting a positive spin on it, the individual can be imagined as glass and anger as water. The glass can be filled with water until its capacity. Still, once that is reached, it will start to spill over uncontrollably. Similarly, when the individual arrives at their capacity for holding and suppressing their anger, it will begin to spill over. In such a case, the situation might aggravate in a fight or only avoidance. Consider the alternative, if and when the person feels angry, they can convey their hurt or disappointment in a direct statement using their feelings and ownership (I messages) on display. This can help the other person to understand them better and take a conscious step forward to mend their relationship.
This culture can also create isolation by making one more disconnected with their self and others. It will not promote authentic connections instead generate a group of people engaging through false perceptions. When one only expresses and validates positive feelings, they give a message to people that ‘only good feelings are accepted and invited in their presence’. It means a person who may be inclined to share some negative emotion could be discouraged from a heart to heart talk.
To appear more acceptable, individuals may convince themselves that posing as an optimistic individual will make them more conforming and popular. Denying the reality, minimizing the effect of an event and invalidating feelings of self are a form of self-betrayal in such a case. This is when the individual is not helping themselves through a positive mindset, instead of forcing themselves to be okay when they are not. Internalizing such demands and expectations can pose as dangerous.
It can also close off channels of feedback. Take another example of an individual who is searching for jobs and experiencing difficulties with it. However, that individual keeps looking for employment and appearing for interviews with a positive mindset that “It will all be well in the end.” Although that may be true, the individual might also cut themselves off to constructive feedback while being pre-occupied with just the positives. It may be the case that the individual needs to work more on their curriculum vitae or boost their confidence while talking with interviewers. It is crucial here to mention that this in no way indicates that one should beat themselves up to experience growth. However, a certain level of healthy stress called “eustress” is essential for any individual to strive for the best. Thus it is not entirely harmful to challenge oneself or even work on the negatives.
Toxic positivity underplays the importance of dealing with negatives emotions in cases of chronic and severe illnesses, homelessness, unemployment/ financial distress, food insecurity and systemic discrimination.
It promotes the idea of shame and guilt associated with negative emotions like sadness, anger, jealousy, fear and loneliness (among a few) as well as making the person feel bad for feeling bad. This will lead to build-up complex emotions which may go unaddressed.
How to deal with it?
A study by Ford and colleagues (2018) found that there is a direct association between emotional acceptance and psychological health. The study states that accepting or simply acknowledging negative emotions keeps people from reacting to it, thus reducing the chances of elevating the distress. Habitually receiving mental experiences promote psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and reduces depressive and anxiety symptoms (Ford et al., 2018). Since people generally cannot control how they react or feel towards a situation, it may be beneficial to accept the emotions it elicits in the person, by doing this one is not repressing the said emotion rather giving it the attention it deserves. While assuming what one feels, the next step can be to identify what they want to do about it.
Talk to a responsible person: Recognize a person who understands and validates your feelings in your life. This individual may be a friend, family member, peer, pen pal or therapist. Ask the person if they would be willing to help you navigate your negative feelings. If they affirm, you can begin with what you feel comfortable in sharing. One must remember to not push themselves instead to take small steps in the direction they want to head in.
Write about it: You use a diary, page or note to write down your emotions. Get creative and write all the negative or positive emotions you feel and see what emotions emerge frequently. These may be the emotions that are calling for more of your attention.
Move your body: The human body was made to move either emotionally or physically. While acknowledging and accepting your negative emotions, an individual can decide to convert that energy into any physical outlet. This can be boxing, running, tap dancing or even shimmy!
Actively call out the culture of toxic positivity: When you see someone enforcing positivity, call them out on it. Tell them that positive emotions give one a sense of genuine contentment which is a state that cannot be forced on oneself. Every individual is experiencing their own journey, and they are allowed to feel everything that comes their way.
Thank your negative emotions: Negative emotions are challenging emotions, however actively avoiding them can make a person’s situation worse. Acknowledge and label your negative emotions, thank them for serving their purpose. When you do this, you bring the feeling into your awareness and consciously decide to let go of it. For example, your anger may inform you of the injustice you feel or sadness may tell that you need companionship and support. When one accepts their emotions, they pave the way for a better understanding of their self.
Use mindfulness techniques: Mindfulness techniques include conscious breathing; becoming aware of your surroundings in terms of what you see, hear and feel concerning it; mindful eating which involves being aware of what you are eating, how much you are eating, what it tastes or looks like (Ryden, 2020).
Disengage with social media: People are frequent to post their happy moments as it fetches them instant agreement from people. When you feel you don’t identify with them, take a step back.
Ford, B., Lam, P., John, O., & Mauss, I. (2018). The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075–1092. https://eerlab.berkeley.edu/pdf/papers/Ford_etal_inpress_Acceptance2.pdf
Long, J., & Quintero, S. (2019). What is Toxic Positivism? — Observatory of Educational Innovation. https://observatory.tec.mx/edu-news/what-is-toxic-positivism
Ryden, L. (2020). Teaching our kids (and ourselves) mindfulness to get us through the coronavirus anxiety - The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/03/20/teaching-our-kids-ourselves-mindfulness-get-us-through-conronavirus-anxiety/