Toxic positivity — what is it? And how do you not support it so it doesn’t make things worse?
What is toxic positivity? How do you recognize it? What is so unpositive about positivity? “Chin up,” “think positive,” or “it could be worse” are among the many messages we should avoid if we want to show someone support. What other words can be toxic? Do they create pressure?
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation we find ourselves in, we should remain positive. And it has little to do with positive psychology. This attitude leads us to completely freeze and invalidate difficult emotions in favor of a smile glued to our face. Slogans by which we can recognize toxic positivity include “joy is a choice,” “positive vibes only,” “everything will be okay,” and “heads up.” Forced optimism leads us to demonize difficult emotions. Instead of consciously experiencing sadness or anger, we start avoiding them like hell or looking for immediate solutions. And this in turn creates serious consequences for our mental health.
Why do we use toxicly positive messages?
One reason may be a culture that instills in us an artificially positive attitude. Since everyone around us claims that positive thinking solves all problems, we become convinced that it is indeed an effective method of emotional regulation. In addition, social media accelerates the rate at which this phenomenon unfolds. As a result, when 1,500 of our virtual friends apply such messages, we find it hard not to believe that maybe they are right.
The human need to find solutions is not without significance. When a loved one approaches us with a problem, we automatically search for answers. We use sometimes useless sayings such as: “It will heal by the wedding.” This comes from a sense of helplessness. We are in action mode and want to do something immediately. And yet emotions need to be felt, not done with. If I feel sad or depressed, the adaptive behavior will be to cry, wrap myself in a blanket, or watch my favorite TV show. Repressed and unexperienced emotion will not go anywhere. On the contrary, it will come back to us with redoubled force on the occasion of a crisis.
The effects of toxic positivity
“When you tell someone to think positive, what you’re really saying is that your comfort is more important than their reality,” says Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Fitness.
By using positive messages in response to difficult experiences, we invalidate the other person’s emotions. If I feel myself gathering tears and someone tells me there’s nothing to cry about, they’re denying the same emotion I’m feeling. As a result, I cannot validate them, that is, reassure myself that what I am feeling is correct. In this way, we learn that other people’s opinion is more important than our own feelings. And from here it is a short way to self-neglect, which is the practice of questioning one’s own feelings.
Social media also heightens feelings of alienation and shame. If everyone on Instagram is beautiful and happy, my sadness becomes incomprehensible to me. I begin to question my emotions. When reviewing social media, we need to understand that we are comparing our own backstory to someone else’s scene. When faced with the entire spectrum of possible emotions, we cannot expect to feel only happiness. Basic emotions include anger, joy, fear, disgust, and sadness. Only one of these is positive. Patients often come to a psychologist with the intention of erasing all difficult emotions in favor of positive ones. This is not possible. Even in a good life there will be elements that make us angry or sad. In the case of loss of a loved one or relationship breakdown, the body’s normal reaction is sadness. The same as feeling anger when someone steps on our toes. Emotions inform us about the loss or unpleasant event. So invalidating them takes away our ability to consciously experience life.
Blocking out difficult emotions and feeling only the positive ones can lead to complete indifference. If nothing makes us sad, angry or anxious, then nothing will make us happy either. Then we lose part of the important experience that Steven C. Hayes in “The Liberated Mind”. To live, we must experience all emotions. In doing so, we create contrasts and get information about what makes us happy in life, what makes us sad, and what is important to us. By focusing on the informational role of emotions, we can get to know ourselves and our own needs better.
How to support and comfort wisely?
When someone shares a difficult experience with us, we don’t have to come up with solutions right away. Just ask a simple question: is there anything I can do for you? Then we have a chance to find out what the other person needs. Our role is not to be therapeutic, but to be a simple, non-judgmental presence. We can support with validation and permission for the other person to feel what she really feels. This will give her a sense of security and the knowledge that she has someone to count on. An equally supportive behavior will be a reflection in communication. By saying: “I can see that you are experiencing something difficult” or “I can see that you are sad or angry”, we make the emotions felt legitimate.
Take special care not to belittle if someone’s reaction or emotion does not match our experience. It is also important to defy stereotypes. People of any gender or identification can cry. Sayings like “boys don’t cry” are harmful. We need to build an atmosphere of acceptance and complete openness. Let’s also be careful about what we say. A person who experiences a lot of emotions is not immediately borderline. A worse day does not equal depression, and a difficult memory does not mean PTSD. Such statements are hurtful to people who are struggling with a particular diagnosis.
When faced with a difficult situation, we also have the right not to know how to help. We are not psychotherapists for our loved ones. However, we can show support by helping to find the right professional or by expressing concern. Let’s offer support to the extent that we can. Remember, however, to avoid positive phrases. Instead, let’s practice presence, attentiveness, empathy, and empowerment of our often difficult emotions.
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