Positivity is good, right? After all, within the realm of psychology, being taught to change negative thought patterns into positive ones is a part of cognitive reconstructing and behavior therapy. But what happens when that positivity tips over into the realm of the unhelpful?
“Good vibes only.” “No drama.” “Happiness is a choice.” “Everything happens for a reason.” You may have spoken these words yourself at some point. The problem with narrow comments such as these, is that they are often doing more harm than good. They essentially become what is now being called toxic positivity. They’re dismissing. Minimizing.
And when somebody is feeling at their absolute worst – whether they’re in the throes of a deep depression or have recently lost a loved one – these comments can be potentially harmful. Genuine pain is pushed aside because there is no longer any room for a difficult discussion to take place. At its core, toxic positivity denies real human emotion. And dealing with emotion is a vital part of the grieving process for many.
According to Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D. (in writing for Psychology Today), “When you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger. Avoiding negative emotions reinforces this idea: Because you avoid feeling them, you tell yourself that you don’t need to pay attention to them. While you are trapped in this cycle, these emotions become bigger and more significant as they remain unprocessed. But this approach is simply unsustainable. Evolutionarily, we as humans cannot program ourselves to only feel happy.”
Furthermore, your emotions are part of your instinct to survive – ignoring and downplaying them only throws your mind into chaos. For example, when we feel the sensation of fear, our body is telling us to be more aware of our environment; it’s a survival mechanism. To deny emotion of any sort simply isn’t doing you any good mentally in the long run.
Then there’s the simple notion: channelling toxic positivity can cause you to come across as an unapproachable or unsympathetic person. And doesn’t the world need more sympathy these days?
Toxic positivity is quite sneaky. On the surface, it seems helpful, and can work its way into conversation in the following ways:
Accepting difficult emotion – particularly while grieving – is perhaps the best thing you can do for someone. Rather than throwing an unhelpfully happy mantra their way, allow somebody feeling anxious, depressed or similar to simply talk through their feelings. Sometimes, you may find that you don’t need to say anything, and that offering open ears (and an open heart!) will be of great benefit.
Dr Lukin also reminds us that “Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ all positive or all negative. Instead, think of them as guidance: Emotions help us make sense of things. If you’re sad about leaving a job, it probably means that experience was meaningful. If you feel anxious about a presentation, it probably means you care about how you are perceived.” Emotions also serve to communicate better to those around you – if you are openly sad, it draws to you the sympathy and support you may very well need during dire times.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t have to be happy-go-lucky individuals all of the time: facing difficult emotions as they come and go will help you understand yourself much better. Finding the silver lining is great, but having the correct support when you need it is gold.