Toxic positivity is based on the belief that a positive mindset is best and that regardless of what you’re going through, we should only have positive feelings in response to it. But no one should feel guilty for being sad. And sometimes, being told to “look on the bright side” isn’t very helpful.
Back in March, we had to postpone our forthcoming marriage due to the pandemic. After announcing this to our guests, we were overwhelmed by a flood of lovely, well-intended comments. However, I noticed that many of them encouraged me to minimise, avoid or even deny my feelings of sadness and upset: everything will be fine, stay positive, it could be worse. It left me with a slightly bitter taste - wasn’t I entitled to feel grief? Were my tears invalid?
Amidst the chaos of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown as we settled into being at home for the long haul, a strong undercurrent of ‘make the best of it’ bubbled away.
We were encouraged by enthusiastic LinkedIn posts to develop our side hustles, and by social media to use our time wisely; to write novels, learn new languages and carve out new, toned bodies when actually, it was completely normal to feel disillusioned and anxious at a time when no one knew what was coming next.
As we head into what many fear could be a second lockdown, with job losses and lives still in mayhem following the first, the familiar echo of those who say ‘it could be worse’ on repeat (despite worse being relative to whomever is experiencing it) is starting to repeat.
Throughout our lives, I’m sure we’ve all encountered someone who is frenetically positive, constantly telling you to look on the bright side, to smile, to ‘live your best life’? Perhaps a friend who tells you to look for the silver lining, a family member who says that ‘everything happens for a reason’, or a boss who applies blind optimism when everything is falling apart. And of course, across social media, it’s difficult to avoid saccharine pastel posts about ‘being your best you’ and stark orders for ‘positive vibes only’.
But what do these words actually mean? Rather than being helpful sentiments, statements like this can often be empty, inauthentic platitudes, offering nothing actionable or constructive. While there’s definitely something to be said for staying upbeat in the face of adversity - I’m not saying that you should not be optimistic when you truly are - there is a dark side to trying to think, be and act positive all the time, or expect someone else to have to. This is called toxic positivity and it can damage not only your relationships but your own emotional wellbeing.
Lucy, 26, says that peoples positivity around her job loss at the start of the pandemic was really difficult to cope with: “I know people meant well, but I just wanted to feel justified in having a bit of a moan, because I was so upset. I didn’t need people telling me to keep smiling, or to hear ‘onwards and upwards!’ - I just wanted someone to listen to me. It felt like I shouldn’t feel bad and ended up with feelings of guilt.”
At its core, toxic positivity is based on the belief that a positive mindset is best, and that regardless of an experience, people should only have positive feelings in response to it. This behaviour, however, suggests that negative or painful emotions are ‘bad’ and that they are something to be avoided. It results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of our valid, authentic emotional experiences.
“Toxic positivity can increase the emotional distress a person can feel when they have had a painful experience, as attempts are made to avoid the normal, authentic and genuine emotional response,” explains Dr Roberta Babb, registered clinical psychologist and founder of The Hanover Centre.
“As a result, people can feel bad, sad, angry, anxious, guilty or confused about experiencing painful emotions. They may also be silent when experiencing difficulties as they do not want to be seen in a negative light or be negatively evaluated, judged or criticised by others.”
Of course, there is absolutely no harm in being truly cheerful - we all need a bit of positivity at the moment. The danger is tipping over the edge and adopting a faux response to what is happening around us.
“I’m better at coping with my emotions now, but there was a time when I would be so overly positive on Instagram for my following that I was simply ignoring the fact that actually, things weren’t 100%,” Sara, 25, says, “I bottled everything up, only ever presented my ‘best self’ and I felt that if I let that guard down, I’d be a failure.”
Senior therapist Sally Baker believes for good emotional wellbeing, it is crucial that people respond authentically to what is happening to them and that “only by experiencing negative and even painful emotions that people can learn to trust their ability to recover from adversity and bounce back from tough times.”
“The impetus to restrict one’s emotional responses is often a belief that by not experiencing negative emotions, people can protect themselves from experiencing uncomfortable feelings.”
As humans, we aren’t perfect. We experience hurt, jealousy, anger and sadness - but these are all emotions which help us to grow. In denying our own, or someone else’s truths, we end up living inauthentically with ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Realistically, if you can’t be honest with yourself about your own feelings, how can you hold space for someone else expressing emotion in your presence? By curating a world where your emotions are false, it’s likely that you will end up suffering more, further down the line.
“As with most things, a balance and a range of emotions are important,” says Dr Babb, “It is important to remember that emotions are transient, and they will pass.”