The Dangers of Toxic Positivity
Our feelings from the pandemic are becoming overwhelming.
The Journal of Mental Health recently published an article on the mental health consequences of COVID-19. It reports an increase in domestic violence, depressions, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and an increase in obsessive-compulsive behavior from frequent handwashing.
So to counteract this, we often hear about the need to always have “a positive outlook on life!”
However, it is just as important to allow ourselves to feel the negative stuff. In fact, it can be dangerous to counter the voices of those who are struggling by constantly encouraging them to “look on the bright side.” This is called “toxic positivity.” It is defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.”
Veronika Tait Ph.D. recently came across a social media post in a neighborhood group that insisted they only talk about the good that has come from the pandemic.
But here are three reasons this can actually become equally harmful.
1. Denying or avoiding unpleasant emotions only makes them bigger.
2. You lose valuable information when you are avoiding negative emotions. For
example, when you are scared, your emotions are telling you, “Be aware of your
surroundings.” In fact, emotions themselves often act as information. They are giving
you a snapshot of what is going on at a given moment, but they don’t tell you exactly
what to do or how to react.
For example, when a person sees a dog up the street, his fear of dogs doesn't mean he must cross the street. It just means that he perceives it as a potential threat. Once a person identifies the emotion, he decides whether he wants to avoid the dog or face the fear.
3. People who do not pay attention to negative feelings often give the impression they
don't have them, which can make them seem far less approachable and relatable.
They often give the impression that they don't have any problems.
However, all of us have problems, and a person who ignores negative feelings (whether they are coming from himself or those around him) can actually be annoying or difficult to connect with.
Imagine trying to have a meaningful relationship with someone who ignores your sadness or anxiety.
So here are three ways we can help both others and ourselves without painting a silver lining around the struggles which people around the world are facing.
1. Being emotionally regulated.
Believe it or not, taking care of ourselves first actually increases our capacity to care for others. These might include making a conscious effort to exercise, eating nutrient-dense foods, prioritizing healthy sleep habits, and practicing self-compassion.
2. Channeling your empathy into compassion
Compassion is recognizing the emotions of others and having concern for their well-being. Accepting negative difficult emotions helps with both coping and decreasing the intensity of those emotions. Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend.
Getting things off your chest, including negative things, is like lifting a weight from your shoulders, even if it’s more difficult than pretending everything is fine. This can actually lead to positive feelings and helping behaviors.
3. Listening with kindness and acknowledging their feelings.
Avoid comparing who is suffering more.
Seek understanding before offering advice.
Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions such as, “Are you hurting, or depressed, or feeling suicidal” as this does not increase the risk of suicide.
Emotions are neither "good" nor "bad," positive nor negative. Rather, they can be a guide. Our feelings help us make sense of things. They are not only a way for our mind to clue us into what’s happening; they also convey information to the people around us. In other words, If we are sad, it pulls for comfort. If we communicate guilt, it pulls for forgiveness.
And while it may seem beneficial to always try to look on the bright side of things and find the silver lining in all life experiences, it’s important to acknowledge and listen to our emotions when they aren’t as pleasant.
No one can be a ray of sunshine 24/7; humans just don’t work that way.
In fact, paying attention and processing your own emotions as they come and go may help you better understand yourself, and those around you.
Steven R. Campbell, MSIS
Mr. Campbell is an award-winning author, speaker and mentor to individuals and organizations. Known as “the Brain Whisperer,” he teaches how your mind can be your greatest adversary and, when understood, can be transformed into your greatest friend and ally. He wants to help shift the mindset of Chopsticks Alley readers. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Zoology from San Diego State University and a Masters in Information Systems from the University of San Francisco and has been exploring and teaching the discoveries of cognitive psychology in various universities and colleges for over 25 years.