Toxic Positivity

The antidote to toxic positivity in your life

There’s no denying the power of positivity, but is optimism alone the key to optimal living? We speak to psychologist Kobie Allison to discover the antidote to toxic positivity.

Words Kayla Wratten

Positivity is everywhere. Just scroll through your social media feed and you’ll come face to face with the Instagram highlight reel: upbeat stories of success and motivational quotes that tell you “happiness is an attitude”. The #goodvibes hashtag has racked up over one million posts on the photo-sharing app alone, but what happens when you encounter an experience that leaves you feeling … not so good? The impulse to cling to happiness in difficult situations, such as a global pandemic, is an understandable one, but this outpouring of relentless optimism is creating a spike in what has been coined toxic positivity.

Trend forecasting platform WGSN described the term in their Future Consumer 2022 trend report as “the concept that keeping positive, and only positive, is the right way for people to live their lives. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.” On paper, this might come across as a great way to stay afloat in a choppy sea of “unprecedented times”. After all, research indicates that positive thoughts improve mood and lead to less stress and lower levels of depression, highlighting that it’s healthy to practise gratitude and maintain a hopeful mindset. But positivity becomes toxic for both ourselves and others when it begins to criticise and delegitimise any other feeling that arises, including sadness and anxiety.

At times in life it is entirely appropriate to be sad, yet with such an emphasis on positivity dominating the zeitgeist, it is tempting to cajole a sad friend into looking on the bright side. Research shows, though, that for some people this is counterproductive.

“Toxic positivity can look like blanket statements such as ‘Look on the bright side,’ or ‘It could be worse’ or ‘Everything happens for reason,’ said to another person with the intent to encourage them, but often has the opposite effect,” says psychologist Kobie Allison, director of Modern Minds healthcare clinic. If you’ve ever used one of these Band-Aid phrases to comfort a struggling friend or family member, you could have unknowingly contributed to the rising culture of toxic positivity.

People with low self-esteem do not respond well to “positive reframing”. The low-self-esteem person will see a negative event as affirmation of the view they already have of themselves. According to researchers, what such a person wants is understanding and appreciation that the negative emotions they are experiencing are appropriate, reasonable and understandable.

Such evidence poses the question: why do we instinctively fall back on these chirpy platitudes in the face of adversity? “It could be due to not knowing what to say or in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable situation that’s too heavy to handle,” Kobie explains. “Toxic positivity is harmful because it invalidates the current pain that is experienced.”

When our raw emotions are brushed aside with light-hearted statements in heavy-hearted situations, we can often end up feeling even worse than before. As Kobie puts it: “Blanket optimism is an unhelpful coping technique as it not only invalidates but shames the person for feeling the way they do. Thus, another complicated emotion, shame, is layered on top of the difficult circumstance that is already present. Toxic positivity makes you feel like you need to morph yourself to suit another person’s level of comfortability, rather than letting yourself be human.”

We have collectively soldiered through a global pandemic, extreme natural disasters and political turmoil. Feelings of loneliness, fear and uncertainty are bubbling beneath the surface, yet we’re still expected to “stay positive” and suppress our negative emotions. But by rejecting our natural reactions, we’re missing out on the mental and physical benefits that come with experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions.

In the WGSN trend report, it’s noted that people who embrace their negative feelings have improved negotiation and decision-making skills, more stable marriages, lower risk of heart attack and longer lives overall. “There are a lot of empirical studies on the benefits of feeling and releasing negative emotions. In short, suppressing these real human emotions does our body and mind more harm than we realise. Being able to label what we feel and release it outside of us helps to begin the healing process,” Kobie concurs.

If we want to reap these long-term benefits, where is the starting point for our journey to emotional acceptance? Psychotherapist and author of Toxic Positivity Whitney Goodman uses her popular Instagram account, @sitwithwhit, to channel her research-backed ideas on this hot topic. In one post she advises: “Try to validate the emotion you’re feeling and name it; show yourself some empathy; try to understand why you feel the way you feel.” Whitney believes people need to practise experiencing and processing their emotions before they can begin to replace a negative thought with a positive thought.

When Gabrielle Christensen was made redundant from her full-time graphic designer job during the height of the pandemic, she experienced waves of panic, helplessness and low self-esteem. She reveals it was isolating to hear her friends dish out positive phrases such as “You’ll land an even better job” masked as well-intentioned advice. “At the time, it felt as though my world had shifted. My days were suddenly empty, my regular income flow disappeared and I missed chatting to my colleagues. But above all I felt as though I’d lost a huge chunk of my identity,” Christensen says. “My friends didn’t seem to understand how putting on a brave face didn’t feel like an option at the time. It actually felt easier to just sit and ‘feel the feels’ rather than forcing myself to pretend everything was fine.”

Alexandra Donaldson experienced a similar situation with her housemates when she was grieving the unexpected loss of her grandmother. She says her housemates either made empty promises that her pain would lessen with time, or simply avoided the difficult conversation altogether. Instead of reducing, her heartache only worsened as she felt stifled and unable to express her emotions at home. “People are not aware how to truly best support another person,” Kobie says, stating that our lack of awareness around emotional acceptance creates space for toxic positivity to creep in. “What someone deems helpful to themselves may not be helpful to another. We are good at sympathising but rarely comfortable to truly empathise with another human being in suffering.”

“Extending deep compassion to ourselves and others who are feeling negative emotions is highly beneficial. Being more accepting of our humanness and letting that relate us to one another will be one of the puzzle pieces in moving forward,” says Kobie, who suggests listening, asking questions and validating people’s feelings as the best ways to support people who are struggling. So what is the antidote to toxic positivity and the key to overall wellbeing? Emotional acceptance. “Accepting all of our emotions begins by accepting all of ourselves,” Kobie says. “Although it sounds clichéd, extending love, grace and compassion to all of us sets the tone to begin to reframe our mindset.”

Kobie’s tips to reframe your mindset

  • Let yourself pause. Sometimes, it feels like we need to fight for silence and fight for stillness in our lives. If we don’t face these emotions, we won’t get through it.
  • Try journaling, talking to a trusted person, walking and meditating. Practical activities are common ways to sit and release the negative emotions from the inner recesses of our heart and mind.
  • Engage in dance, music, art or equine therapy. These are practical support systems to help us sit and release negative emotions that are attached to human experiences.

A positive word

In 1969 some psychologists came up with the “Pollyanna hypothesis”, the idea that there is a universal human tendency to use positive words more frequently than negative ones. This was just an untested theory, until researchers gathered billions of words from around the world using a range of sources including books, news outlets, social media, websites, television subtitles, movie subtitles and music lyrics. The research encompassed 10 languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese (including Brazilian), Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Arabic.

For each language they found the most frequently used words and then asked native speakers of the language to rate the words on a scale from 1 to 9 for their positive or negative nature (1 being negative and 9 being positive). In English for instance, “laughter” was rated 8.5, “food” 7.44, “the” 4.98, “greed” 3.06 and “terrorist” 1.3. The results showed a preponderance of positive language that goes some way to explain why we instinctively choose to respond with positive words, even when the situation calls for a more nuanced and thoughtful response.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, she’s writing articles on things she’s passionate about, from sustainability to interior design.

WellBeing Team

WellBeing Team

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