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Toxic positivity: the way in which we give and get advice

The phrase ‘toxic positivity’ seems like an oxymoron – there’s no way that the attitude we all aspire to have can be poisonous… or can it? Toxic positivity refers to the belief that no matter how difficult the circumstances are, you should maintain a positive attitude. That’s not to say that trying to make the best out of a bad situation is unhealthy; by all means looking for silver linings is great. Yet, when those silver linings look a little more grey, it’s okay to accept that, rather than squinting for some sparkle.

In today’s society we are encumbered by a culture of comparison wherein as a result of social media, every aspect of our lives has become competitive. This extends into our feelings; often you’ll feel unable to be upset because there are much bigger problems going on around the world. However, the famine in Yemen shouldn’t invalidate the feelings of loss or grief in your own life. Yes, this is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the absurdity of this culture of forced positivity.

Image: mark-adriane via unsplash

Feelings can’t be compared; everyone is entitled to experience sadness when it washes over them, no matter the cause. Circulating messages of positivity can invalidate feelings of pain, sadness or fear which means that these emotions aren’t dealt with. After all, the first step in solving a problem is by acknowledging it. Ignoring these negative feelings doesn’t make them go away, they simply manifest themselves in a different and potentially more noxious way. A psychological study completed in 2018 revealed that people who habitually avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse. Moreover, certain situations simply cannot be met with positivity. You wouldn’t tell a starving child in Yemen to ‘look on the bright side’ because quite frankly, there is no bright side.

However, spotting toxic positivity can be difficult. How do you determine when positivity has become unhealthy? The Psychology Group suggest that the main expressions of toxic positivity include: masking your feelings and trying to get on with it, minimising other people’s experience with feel good quotes, shaming others for expressing negative emotion or feeling guilt for your emotions. Over lockdown, toxic positivity was omnipresent in the rhetoric of putting a brave face on to get through these “unprecedented times”. Over the course of lockdown, when I was having a bad day, I found myself questioning why I was upset: I seemingly had no reason to be: no deadlines, no fomo, no pressure. However, the sources of my stress had simply changed. We are living through a global pandemic as a result of which our lives have been completely flipped upside down… I think it’s okay that we feel anxious, angry or upset. By ignoring these negative feelings, I was simply feeding this toxic positivity trend.

Image: Tumisu via Pixabay

Although recognising toxic positivity is a key factor in acknowledging negative feelings, attempting to avoid forcing positivity is not the solution to the problem either. Indeed, there is a fine balance between accepting negative emotions and dwelling on them which can lead to a negative spiral. Both when recognising your own feelings and advising others on how to deal with theirs, psychologists recommend practising mindfulness. This involves acknowledging your/their feelings and validating them no matter how grave you imagine them to be.

Suffering is a part of life and when someone is going through a tough time, quite often they just want to be comforted by the fact that someone is there for them. Thus, combatting toxic positivity can simply be a conscious effort to use the right language. When giving advice, instead of promulgating messages of toxic positivity, you can validate the person’s feelings. For example, instead of “Don’t think about it, stay positive!” you can say “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.” Or “I see you’re suffering, I’m here for you.”

Overall, the poetic lyrics of Jessie J ring true in the face of toxic positivity: “it’s okay not to be okay”.

Image: Serena-Wong via Pixabay