Dr Lynda Shaw discusses the rise of toxic positivity and methods to counter the effects
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity can come in the form of advice from someone who unwittingly invalidates your feelings when you’re feeling low, or stops you feeling justified about your response to a situation or makes light of your experience.
Toxic positivity also occurs when we feel we must be positive all the time and avoid feelings that are difficult to deal with, like anger or hurt. Often our self-talk may be around guilt, such as ‘I’ve no right to feel fed up; look at how many people are suffering in the world’, as shame (‘I should be doing so much better’), or as low self-worth (‘feeling anxious is stupid’), and so we swallow these feelings and try to project ourselves as doing better emotionally than we are.
Why is toxic positivity on the rise?
Many of us have suffered hardship, anxiety and low mood during the pandemic, but have forced ourselves, or been pushed or urged by someone else, to swallow those feelings and to count ourselves as lucky. We have also watched others seemingly thrive during this time, flaunting their new hobbies, revealing lockdown achievements and enjoying their time as the world’s happiest family, often projecting false realities.
Toxic positivity has also flourished because of social media, which often only shows us at our best in the moments we want to share. This kind of positivity overload encourages a comparison culture and has made us far more critical of ourselves. We feel pressured to be positive all the time and feel like failures when we are having an off day or month.
So, what can we do to avoid toxic positivity?
1. Embrace all emotions
All feelings are valuable and contribute to our human experience. ‘Negative’ feelings like anxiety, anger and fear are primitive responses that our brain releases to keep us safe from threats. Honour your emotions and allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel. Feelings are responses, so they need to be given time and space.
2. Be authentic
Give yourself and others permission to experience all emotions, including ‘negative’ ones, so you can work through them and let them go in your own time. If we don’t act with authenticity, it affects our ability to make social bonds and destroys others’ trust in us.
3. Recognise that social media does not project a true reality
If you’re going through a tough period, avoid getting engrossed in social media. Remember that often it projects a false reality of eternal happiness and perfection.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others
We have all had varying life experiences that have shaped us, and we deal with things differently. If your friend responds to something in a different way than you, that does not make your response wrong. We feel things in different ways.
5. If you are talking to others, listen
Take the time to understand what is wrong, rather than invalidating someone’s feelings with toxic positivity. Listen carefully and try to put yourself in their shoes. Enter the conversation without judgement and show respect. Validate their feelings by offering sympathy, showing understanding and offering your help rather than trying to shut down how they feel and shake them up into feeling better.
6. Take healthy steps
Go for a walk to clear your head or have a chat with a friend. Plan something to look forward to but allow yourself to feel what you feel.
7. You wouldn’t ignore a physical pain, so don’t ignore an emotional one.
If you had a chronic physical pain, you would do something to fix it – we need to do the same with our mental health. It is best to acknowledge our pain in order to work through it. Suffering allows us to learn and can give us perspective to build upon.
8. Shift the focus to mental health
Too much emphasis is placed on ‘being positive’ in order to maintain good mental health. Rather than pushing negative feelings aside, give them space and attend to them accordingly. By shifting the focus, accepting and understanding our feelings can lead to powerful learning through life’s ups and downs.