“This too shall pass!”
“Don’t cry, it will all be fine!”
“Just focus on the bright side!”
Do these phrases sound familiar to you? We’ve heard them numerous times, from friends, family and other well-wishers, whenever we’re going through a difficult time. Although they are well-intentioned, this kind of over-the-top positivity, according to experts, is detrimental to our mental health and is commonly referred to as toxic positivity.
- Toxic positivity is the belief that we should only focus on positive emotions or the positive aspects of life instead of recognising and acknowledging negative emotions as well,
- While negative emotions are hard to process and often unpleasant to deal with, the need for them to be addressed with all honesty is of vital importance,
- Some long-term effects of toxic positivity include encouraging a person to stay silent about their problems and troubles, which can lead to physical symptoms like more stress on the body, as well as emotional ones like shame and feelings of isolation.
What is toxic positivity? How does it impact our well-being?
According to Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, “Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort.”
In essence, toxic positivity is the belief that we should only focus on positive emotions or the positive aspects of life instead of recognising and acknowledging negative emotions as well. While having a positive outlook towards life is generally good for our mental well-being, everyone deals with their fair share of painful and negative experiences. While these emotions are hard to process and often unpleasant to deal with, the need for them to be addressed with all honesty is of vital importance. Having a false notion of excessive positivity does not address the situation at hand, but merely ignores it by making light of the situation.
Heather Monroe, a clinical social worker at Newport Institute, says that the problem with toxic positivity is that it oversimplifies the human brain, and how we process information, thereby, being detrimental to mental well-being. Some long-term effects of toxic positivity include encouraging a person to stay silent about their problems and troubles, which can lead to physical symptoms like more stress on the body, as well as emotional ones like shame and feelings of isolation. For example, in a study conducted by Gross and Levenson, two groups of participants were made to watch macabre, medical procedure films, while their stress indicators were being monitored. One group was allowed to showcase their whole range of emotions while watching the clips, while the other set of volunteers were told to repress any emotion whatsoever. In the end, the results indicated that the participants who were told to repress their emotions had significantly higher amounts of psychological arousal, even though they remained cool and collected on the surface.
Signs of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity isn’t easily recognizable, but there are signs that can help us identify such behaviour and enable us to deal with our emotions better and in the right way. These include:
- Feeling guilty about being sad, dejected, depressed or angry. We must understand that it’s okay not to be okay, at times.
- Dismissing your emotions and problems instead of addressing them.
- Having an “it is what it is” or “this too shall pass” attitude, which doesn’t address the crux of the emotion and only seeks to delay or mute ourselves to the issue at hand.
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing a negative emotion.
- Minimizing your, or other people’s experiences, with “feel good” statements and support.
- Trying to put someone’s problem in perspective (for example, saying “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience.
Some of these might have become a part of your everyday life, but don’t worry. There are ways to move beyond trying to be positive all the time and accept our varied range of human emotions.
Why it’s okay not to be okay, and the importance of the whole range of emotions
To begin with, it’s important acknowledge and understand that as human beings, we go through multiple and complex emotions. Another drawback of having a “good vibes only” approach is that it hinders growth. It denies us the ability to overcome challenging situations or obstacles, which can ultimately provide us with deeper insight, enabling growth.
Each emotion, including negative ones, are telling us something. For example, anxiety could be alerting a person to a dangerous situation or a moral quandary, anger is a normal response to injustice or mistreatment and sadness could be informing us of the intensity of a loss.
Studies have found that labelling and talking about emotions, including negative emotions, may even help the brain better process feelings by reducing the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions, suggesting that talking about feelings may make them feel less overwhelming.
Giving yourself permission to feel your feelings can provide you with the information you need to see things about a situation that you may need to change or work on. Whenever you are going through something difficult, find a way to give voice to your emotions that is productive, like writing in a journal or talking to a trusted friend. You’ll find yourself feeling much better.
While it may feel horrible to be going through something negative and feeling the corresponding emotions, it’s always better to feel your feelings as they come to you and not give in to toxic positivity, a belief that we should only focus on positive emotions or the positive aspects of life and deny anything negative. It is important to recognize the signs of toxic positivity to deal with them in the best manner. Holding in negative feelings can have an adverse impact on your mental and overall health, while expressing all your emotions as they are helps with growth and makes dealing with those emotions a lot easier.