Having a positive outlook and being optimistic can be a healthy approach to life. But believing that we should always be – or strive to be – happy, calm, and free of worry can lead to ‘toxic positivity’. According to the Verywell Mind website, ‘toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset’.
These messages might come from other people – seeing memes on social media encouraging us to ‘look on the bright side of life’, or posts about how we should all ‘make the best of lockdown’ for example. If we tell a friend we’re feeling sad or upset they might remind us we have lots to be grateful for, and that we should focus on the positives. It’s likely they believe they’re being helpful and reassuring, or they’re simply not sure what to say. This can have the opposite effect, however – making us feel our emotions are not valid, and that we’re not being heard or supported. We might also feel ashamed or guilty.
We can also use toxic positivity on ourselves, telling ourselves we’re not entitled to feel sad, angry, stressed or depressed. We might think ‘I shouldn’t feel like this’, or ‘I have no right to be unhappy when there are so many people worse off’. It could be that we believe we’ll be more comfortable if we avoid feeling difficult or painful emotions.
Keeping it inside Internalising or pushing away emotions is bad for our mental health. Trying to suppress them certainly won’t make us feel better – it can cause more psychological stress, and lead to anxiety or depression. It’s not effective, either: if we tell ourselves we mustn’t think about a pink elephant, we immediately think about a pink elephant! On top of that, the effort of maintaining a cheery façade is frankly exhausting.
The problem is the belief that it’s inherently wrong or bad to feel so-called ‘negative’ emotions. There’s a perception that if we allow ourselves to feel them, and if we need to talk about them, this makes us weak or ‘moany’ or means we lack resilience. This is absolutely not the case! Being human is all about experiencing a range of emotions. It’s normal and perfectly OK to feel them all, and it’s also often appropriate, especially at the moment: feeling anxious or low is a very rational response to a pandemic!
It’s important for our mental health that we’re able to feel and express our emotions, and have self-compassion.
Challenging our thoughts Trying thought challenging – a technique CBT practitioners use to help patients manage negative thoughts – can help us validate the emotions we’re feeling, while achieving a more balanced and realistic perspective.
Toxic positivity is as damaging as toxic negativity, when someone’s thoughts are skewed in a negative direction. Neither side of the coin reflects reality. For instance, a teacher who’s been struggling to control their class might think ‘I’m the worst teacher in the world’. That isn’t true. A friend might try to help by saying ‘Come on, stop that, you’re the best teacher in the world!’. That isn’t true, either – and it won’t help the teacher to feel any different. Choosing to believe it could prevent them from addressing any areas that would benefit from improvement.
First, acknowledge and accept the emotions you’re experiencing. What are you feeling? How much are you feeling it? Don’t dispute or challenge anything, just recognise and allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Then assess how true the thought you’re having is. This could be, for example, ‘I have no right to feel upset because I’m healthy and safe’. Is any of that true? Which bits? What is untrue? If you had to defend that thought in court, what factual evidence would you present to convince the jury? ‘I just feel it’ won’t stand up! You could end up with a more balanced thought, such as ‘I am lucky and thankful that I’m healthy and safe. However, I’m upset because I haven’t seen my family for a long time – and it’s OK to feel that’.
Being assertive with others Sometimes we just need someone to sit, listen and let us express how we feel. If you have a friend or family member who gets frustrated when you want to discuss emotions or thoughts that are not ‘positive’, or who tries to push you to feel differently, you could be upfront about the support you need.
Try saying something like: “Right now I’m really sad. I know you’re trying to help, and you don’t want me to feel bad, but can I talk to you occasionally about how I feel? It would really help me.”
If you’re experiencing feelings of sadness, distress, anxiety and depression that are preventing you getting on with life, try CBT. Find out more about CBT here.