Toxic positivity officially entered our cultural atmosphere in 2022 when Susan Cain referred to it in her book, ‘Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make us Whole’. Toxic Positivity is where someone will force themselves to have a positive mindset even in the face of very challenging circumstances.
Ever heard the sayings ‘just stay positive’ or ‘look on the bright side’? Toxic Positivity involves behaviours such as shaming yourself or others for feeling more difficult or negative emotions, feeling guilty for feeling negative emotions, forcing yourself to recite positive affirmations about hard circumstances, hiding painful memories or ignoring your problems.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic Positivity is essentially a form of dysfunctional emotional management. If someone is experiencing a disproportionate volume of negative emotions we are all too happy to label that as depression and encourage a person to seek support. It is interesting that when it comes to positive emotions, we are all too happy to pretend that experiencing these full-time is the goal. However, in reality, both are forms of a disordered emotional landscape. Like yin doesn’t exist without yang, so too positivity does not exist without negativity. We must allow ourselves to feel the whole gamut of human emotion in order to be present and thrive in our lives
That’s not to say that positivity isn’t a wonderful thing and positive emotions are a delight to experience, however it’s not the only candy in the big old shop of life. Negative emotions are part of the deal. To deny these is to be dishonest about what life really is and can lead to long term physical and mental health issues. Research shows that acknowledging the negative emotion or thoughts and validating how tough life can be is far more beneficial than trying to pretend they’re not there or should be altered.
Dealing with Toxic Positivity
When someone is going through a difficult time, trying to point out a silver lining or tell them to keep their chin up and look at the positives can be really damaging. In order to process a difficult experience, we need to be given the opportunity to feel the negative emotions. This way we can move forward. It’s like trying to keep a beach ball under water, it takes a lot of effort and the second you slip, it springs to the surface of the water uncontrollably.
Finally, we know that pretending that everything is cheery does not foster connection, it fosters disconnection. Connection comes from honestly talking about the trials and tribulations of life. More and more people think that something is wrong with them when they can’t muster positivity in the face of bad news or challenging times. We are so scared of people experiencing hardship or pain. But if we all allowed ourselves to acknowledge how hard it is sometimes, we would get better at developing resilience in the face of adversity and coming together in the process.
To learn more about the negatives of the silver lining approach and how to truly show empathy, check out this wonderful little video by the Brené Brown. In the meantime, don’t just stay positive, be exactly where you are!