Few people will believe that “toxic” is a word which can be associated with “positivity.” After all, positivity suggests an optimistic, forward-looking frame of mind from which we can draw strength. It evokes emotions such as hope, a sense of wellbeing and what is commonly referred to as a “positive attitude.” By practicing positivity, we tend to look at the bright side of things. With attributes like these, how can positivity be toxic? The answer may lie in another commonly-used phrase: too much of anything is bad.
“Toxic positivity” is the constant emphasis on maintaining a positive mindset in every situation, even if it is one involving severe difficulty or causing extreme emotional pain. The pressure to exude positive vibes at all times can be either self-inflicted or it can be influenced by external stimuli, including friends and family who urge us to dwell on seemingly positive aspects in even the most dismal situations. Negative emotions are frowned upon or dismissed, and for individuals experiencing such distress, this constant pressure to “stay positive” can make them feel worthless or weak.
The tumultuous time of the last seven months has caused immense distress and emotional turmoil for several reasons. Globally, the novel coronavirus has infected millions and resulted in the deaths of nearly 870,000 people (as of September 4); thousands have lost their jobs or been furloughed; businesses have been shuttered permanently; people are living without significant social support; and families are struggling to balance their work-from-home commitments with childcare or home-schooling responsibilities.
Pandemic-related stressors have induced strong negative emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and even shame/guilt. Under these extreme circumstances, to what extent can negative emotions be suppressed to “stay positive”?
Imagine a situation where, having lost my job and feeling miserable, I share this news with you. A typical response will be, “Keep your chin up; things will get better.” Or perhaps, “This too shall pass.” And maybe, “Think of others who are in a worse position than you. Be grateful for what you have.” Well, no! For once, I don’t want to pretend that everything will be fine. What is wrong in letting myself feel emotions such as dejection or despair? In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, there are countless others who may be feeling the same way. Yet people will expect them to “stay positive.”
This push to maintain a constant façade of optimism does more harm than good. And this is where positivity becomes “toxic” – it overgeneralizes positive aspects across all situations and suppresses genuine human emotions. By invalidating negative emotions and forcefully repressing them, we deny ourselves the experience of working through difficult situations and dealing with them in a healthy manner. This behavior stems from the tendency to overvalue positive emotional experiences and undervalue negative ones.
We can generate toxic positivity ourselves without even being aware of it. Very often, we tend to judge ourselves for feeling bad about a particular situation, and this may lead to the build-up of secondary negative emotions such as shame or guilt. By avoiding negative emotions, we deny ourselves the opportunity to heal by coping with them in a healthy way. Over time, the accumulation of these negative emotions can adversely impact our mental health and manifest in various forms such as disturbed sleep, acute stress responses and higher risk of substance abuse.
There is sufficient evidence regarding the benefits of accepting negative emotions and the harm entailed in avoiding them. Results of a study showed that “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”
The current environment, when the entire world is grappling with a pandemic, is particularly relevant to discuss toxic positivity and the severe harm it can cause. It is not to say that we should not be positive in this situation; however, ignoring or invalidating any not-so-positive feelings will only increase the uneasiness. According to Jenny Maenpaa, a New York-based therapist, “You can fight toxic positivity by acknowledging or recognizing that multiple complex emotions can exist in you all at once. You can be devastated at the loss of life from COVID-19 and enjoy the hygge of quarantine.”
Social media is a “breeding ground for toxic positivity.” We are constantly fed images of perfect vacations, picture-perfect families, beautiful people in designer clothes, stunning homes and everything else which can be associated with happiness and a good life. There is no room for posts which highlight any form of struggle or emotional distress. During the pandemic, several social media posts have fueled toxic positivity. Here is an example which many of us would have come across:
“If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either:
1. a new skill
2. starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business
3. more knowledge
You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”
Realizing the toxic nature of messages such as these, a number of people posted their rebuttals. “This is not a summer vacation, it’s a pandemic,” wrote one user. The response of another person made perfect sense: “Most of us will be more than satisfied if we get through this without losing family members.”
Although we talk about being compassionate, we tend to forget that sometimes we are the people who need compassion the most. And it is perfectly fine to be vulnerable and feel pain, especially in an unprecedented crisis such as the pandemic.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are humans, not walking-talking models of productivity and success. Even if some of us are die-hard optimists, there will be times when we will feel down in the dumps. During such times, it is important to cope with negative feelings in a healthy way instead of suppressing them. According to experts, “Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish.”
Recognizing toxic positivity may not always be easy. The following chart may serve as a useful guide to understand the difference between validating statements (support) and toxic positivity.
Research has found that “putting negative feelings into words can help regulate negative experience, a process that may ultimately contribute to better mental and physical health.” Quite often, writing or talking about how you are feeling can help in regulating feelings such as pain, sadness or anger. And it is not unusual to experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously. It proves that we are capable of experiencing the entire gamut of emotions instead of focusing on only positive dimensions. Which is why it is important to be wary of the toxic positivity trap and not let it ensnare us!
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