How Positivity Can Do More Harm Than Good
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In the age of COVID-19, the push for positivity has become overwhelmingly prevalent in our lives. “Look on the bright side!” “Things could be worse!” “You’ll be okay!”; these are all phrases we’ve seen frequently on social media or heard through interactions with our family and friends in recent months. Although well-intentioned, they are all prime examples of toxic positivity - these seemingly harmless phrases can actually do more harm than good. But how? And why?
Defining Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can be defined as the “belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset” (Cherry 2021). At its core, toxic positivity is unrelenting optimism, where you force yourself to “keep smiling” or “look at the bright side” during not-so-ideal situations.
Toxic positivity makes you feel like being optimistic is the only, correct way to deal with negative emotions and suggests that if you feel down, it is your own fault as you have not “chosen” to be happy.
Let’s see how toxic positivity can manifest in everyday conversations with both mom and Devon:
Notice a pattern? In each of these interactions, although the replies are meant to be sympathetic, they stop the other party from communicating and inhibit them from sharing feelings and emotions they may have wanted to discuss. Although it was not their intention, the messages end up adversely affecting people already dealing with incredibly difficult situations - encouraging them to suppress and “bottle-up” disconsolate emotions.
It is important to note that positivity in itself is not bad - it is a fundamental element of the human experience and has the ability to both heal and comfort people.
However, positivity becomes toxic when it harms someone by denying them the authentic support they need to process and deal with negative emotions - damaging both their emotional and mental health.
How is toxic positivity harmful?
On the surface level, it is somewhat difficult to see the various, adverse effects of toxic positivity - how much harm can forced optimism really do? In general, toxic positivity denies people the ability to feel and communicate authentic human feelings. As seen in the above example, toxic positivity, in a way, silences the voice of someone suffering. Instead of being given a space where they can share how they feel, they are forced to reject difficult emotions in favour of a falsely positive facade where they are constantly reminded to “look at the positive side,” and keep smiling - no matter what.
Toxic positivity can also delegitimize genuine emotions, in fact - it has the power to make people feel guilty for feeling anything other than optimistic during trying time. When someone is suffering, they need authentic support and need to know that their emotions and feelings are valid. Toxic positivity tells them that their feelings are “wrong” - constant reminders to keep smiling sends the message that if you aren’t happy, YOU are to blame, making anyone who is struggling feel flawed.
This guilt and inhibition to express emotion brought about by toxic positivity leads to perhaps the most detrimental aspect of it all: it denies people the ability to process more negative emotions that ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight into their characters. Yes, I know - anger, sadness and other negative emotions are not things people want to endure. It is so much easier to ignore these feelings, and pretend that they simply don’t exist (something toxic positivity enables). However, in the long run, suppressing and ignoring these emotions will leave you much worse off. If you are constantly shutting down negative emotions, you are unable to let them go because you are not giving yourself the time and space you need to process the emotions. In time, these emotions will bottle up and can have long-term consequences in terms of mental health. Suffering is a natural part of life - and humans are biologically designed to grow (in a positive way) from periods of stress and negativity.
In recent years, psychologists have been able to collect tangible evidence of the necessity that is accepting and working through negative feelings. In 2017, researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of California Berkeley studied a link between negative emotions and acceptance in 1,300 research participants.
“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health” - Iris Mauss, Associate Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley (Warzecha 2020)
Recognizing Toxic Positivity
Although just as harmful in each manifestation, toxic positivity is quite versatile and can take many different forms. Here are some key characteristics you can use to determine whether or not you are experiencing toxic positivity:
1) Being forced to hide/mask your true feelings
This can happen as a result of a certain conversation when you are trying to open up but are met with remarks such as “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” these phrases are meant to be sympathetic, but instead shut down anything you might want to say about your experience
2) Dismissing and avoiding negative emotions
As a result of being forced to mask your feelings, you might tend to brush off, ignore and suppress your negative emotions instead of processing them. as discussed previously, this results in poor mental health in the long run
3) Feeling guilty for feeling the way that you do
After expressing disappointment or sadness, you might be met with remarks such as “happiness is a choice” or “you should try to feel happy.” These comments not only make your pain and suffering smaller, but may make you feel guilty and weak forever feeling pain in the first place.
4) Trying to be stoic or “get over” painful emotions
Tying into the dismissal of negative emotions, toxic positivity may result in internalization that in turn manifests as you minimizing your own experience and forcing yourself to “get over” your pain without fully processing, accepting and consolidating your feelings.
There are numerous other ways toxic positivity can manifest but the bottom line is if you feel as if your feelings are being minimized and disregarded, and feel it is your fault for not feeling optimistic - you are most likely dealing with toxic positivity.
Overcoming Toxic Positivity: A Healthier Approach to Optimism
Now we know how to recognize toxic positivity - how do we avoid it? If forced optimism is bad, how can we be optimistic in a healthy way?
According to BBC, one solution to toxic positivity is tragic optimism. Tragic optimism is essentially a “happy medium where instead of crushing our spirit, difficulties and challenges provide us with a learning moment” (BBC, 2020). This concept boasts a more realistic framing of life, where people should celebrate the hope and meaning in life whilst being encouraged to also acknowledge the existence of loss, pain and suffering - something that toxic positivity works against. Tragic optimism creates a mental space where we can experience both the good and bad, and can give ourselves the opportunity to grow from each. It is important to recognize that suffering is an unavoidable aspect of life - embracing tragic optimism means turning pain into an experience you can learn and grow from, whether it be through making an effort to feel comfortable with loneliness or anxiety or making an effort to understand and move past pain through vulnerability.
One easy way to employ tragic optimism is through the “yes, and” approach, where you accept and balance conflicting emotions. When we embrace conflicting emotions, we can eliminate the tensions between them and give room for all emotions to exist, without suppressing any. For example,
you can say ↴ instead of saying ↴
By replacing “but” with “and,” both the negative and positives of the situation can be acknowledged, without one taking precedence over the other.
One of tragic optimism’s main goals is to stop us from avoiding more difficult emotions. Sometimes, it is better to not think of emotions as good or bad and instead think of them as guidance - when we ignore our emotions, we lose valuable information. Emotions help us make sense of things, and give our minds clues into what is happening. It also conveys information to people around us. In an article featured in Psychology Today, Dr. Konstantin Lukin employs an excellent metaphor that depicts the importance of emotion. Imagine you are walking on a street, and you see a scary, violent dog. The first thing you would feel is fear. This fear doesn’t tell you to do anything, but it is an emotion you can consider when taking your next step - because of your fear, you might choose to cross the road and walk on another sidewalk or find another route to your destination. If you ignored your fear and continued on the same path, the probability of you getting hurt and attacked by the dog would be fairly high. In this situation, fear helps steer you in the right direction away from danger - a prime example of how acknowledging negative emotions can be beneficial (Lukin 2019).
As individuals, it is also important to make sure that we aren’t being toxically positive to others in our lives. Here are a few phrase changes that can turn toxic statements into phrases more healthy, genuine, and helpful:
There’s often a certain reaction that comes with trying to console someone who is struggling where you want them to focus on the bright side of things and remind them to count their blessings. And although these actions are well-intentioned, it is far more beneficial to acknowledge the other person’s pain - instead of reminding them to stay optimistic, let them know that you are there for them and ask them what they need to feel supported and safe.
Although it may be helpful to look on the bright side and find the silver lining in life, it is pivotal to take time to process and acknowledge negative emotions and not dismiss them through toxic positivity. Remember: It is okay to not be okay and it is not humanly possible to be a ray of sunshine 24/7 - try to take things day by day, and remember any and all negative emotions you may feel are always valid.
Cherry, Kendra. “Why Toxic Positivity Can Be So Harmful.” Verywell Mind, 1 Feb. 2021, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-toxic-positivity-5093958#:~:text=Toxic%20positivity%20is%20the%20belief,vibes%20only%22%20approach%20to%20life.
Claire Gillespie Updated May 22, and Claire Gillespie. “Trying to Feel Positive All the Time During Covid-19 Can Actually Be Dangerous, Experts Say.” Health.com, www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/what-is-toxic-positivity.
Getty. “Toxic Positivity: 'Cheer up' and Other Wishes That Make Things Worse.” Healthing.ca, PostMedia, 9 Oct. 2020, www.healthing.ca/mental-health/toxic-positivity.
“Toxic Positivity: Don't Always Look on the Bright Side.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-man-cave/201908/toxic-positivity-dont-always-look-the-bright-side.
“'Tragic Optimism': The Antidote to Toxic Positivity.” BBC Worklife, BBC, www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210302-tragic-optimism-the-antidote-to-toxic-positivity.