‘Toxic Positivity’ vs Support: How Toxic Positivity can actually do more harm than good

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Kate had just broken up with her boyfriend of seven years. She locked herself in her room and cried for a week straight. She couldn’t eat nor bring herself out of bed and did not have the same energy to do the things she usually does. Even listening to music, which was her go-to relaxation, makes her feel twisted and crushed.

After week-long isolation, Kate finally found the strength to reach out to her close friend, Mary and texted her.

“Hey, Jerry and I broke up.”

Minutes later, Mary responded, “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, Girl. Are you OK?”

“Not really, to be honest,” Kate replied, her tears started rolling down her cheeks again.

“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be alright. Just think positive, and you’ll get over it soon.”

“But I don’t think I can. I feel so useless without him.”

“Girl, stop being so negative. I went through a rough break up months ago too but look at me now. I’m happy as I can be. I did it because I keep my eyes on the bright side. So you can do it too!”

~

Have you noticed anything wrong in their conversation? When a heartbroken friend confides to you, do you respond the same way Mary does to Kate? Or have you received the same response as Kate does from Mary?

While being positive is not necessarily wrong, enforcing it to someone may become harmful and invalidates genuine feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or hardship.

In this case, it’s not healthy Positivity. It’s toxic.

What is Toxic Positivity and how to tell them apart?

“Toxic Positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset,” explained Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in, among other things, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.

It is when genuine human feelings are rejected, invalidated, or dismissed. It can take many forms such as a family member who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can also be a comment such as “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have” instead of being so “negative” about it.

Most of the time, it can be your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on such as feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear—self-invalidation.

Through Toxic Positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently wrong. Instead, Positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.

“The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience,” said Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, Maryland. “It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distressed, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.”

“Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what is referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive,” Karoll continued.

“They distract us from the problem at hand, and [they] don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health.”

Zuckerman added that “toxic positivity, at its core, is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort.” But when you avoid your emotions, you actually cause more harm.

In a study of the Paradoxical effects of thought suppression in 1987, it explained that when you’re asked not to think about something, it actually makes you more likely to think about it. Meanwhile, in a study about Hiding feelings in 1997, it revealed that suppressing feelings can cause more internal, psychological stress.

“Avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health,” said Zuckerman.

“Failure to effectively process emotions in a timely manner can lead to a myriad of psychological difficulties, including disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD,” she added.

Harmful Effects of Toxic Positivity in times of Pandemic

As you may all know by now, the coronavirus disease pandemic has caused challenges for both physical and mental health worldwide.

According to Dr. Jamie Long, psychologist and owner of The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the pandemic has triggered our need to control and avoid uncertainty.

“With something as unpredictable and uncertain as COVID-19, a knee-jerk reaction might be to slap on an overly optimistic or positive face to avoid accepting a painful reality,” she explained.

The reality we have right now is harrowing, no matter how many of us may want to run away from it. It is something we have to accept painfully.

In short, we’re all collectively battling feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and fear of getting sick.

 

You Might Also Want To Read: Taking Care Of Your Mental Health Amidst A Global Pandemic

 

“The pressure to be productive,” Karoll said, “leaves many, if not most people, feeling inadequate and ashamed that they are simply trying to make it through the day without a panic attack or crying spell.”

Not everyone copes with stress through productivity, which is also why Toxic Positivity that is flooding social media, in a way, can be harmful.

Say it with me, “It’s normal not to feel OK”

Validation is a key component in supporting other people’s hardships and feelings. Though it does not necessarily mean you agree or approve of it in any way. When for instance, a friend or a family member makes a decision that you don’t think is wise, validation is a way of supporting them and strengthening the relationship while maintaining a different opinion.

At the same time, self-validation recognizes and accepts your own thoughts and feelings, instead of avoiding and suppressing it that could bring you damage mentally.

As Zuckerman says, “it’s not only OK to not feel ‘OK,’ it’s essential.”

As human beings, we can’t really choose specific emotions that we want to be present with just a snap of a finger. Because if we can, who would like to be sad and miserable, right? It simply doesn’t work that way.

“Feeling all our feelings, painful or not, keeps up grounded in the present moment,” Zuckerman said.

So, she adds, “It is important to remove the expectation and goal of feeling positive.”

 

~

Now, going back to our story. What could have Mary said to take away the Toxic Positivity?

“Hey, Jerry and I broke up,” Kate hesitantly hit the send button.

Minutes later, Mary responded, “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, Girl. Are you okay?”

“Not really, to be honest,” Kate replied, her tears started rolling down her cheeks again.

“It’s okay if you’re feeling down right now. It’s been seven years after all. How about I go grab some ice cream and go over there and you can tell me all about it. I’ll be there to listen.”

“That sounds a good idea actually,” Kate replied.

“I know how terrible it feels right now and it will take time for it to pass. But know that, along the process, I’m here for you.

 

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