There’s no doubt that positive thinking can significantly improve your wellbeing. Optimism has been studied for decades and it’s been demonstrated that having a positive outlook on life can lead to more resiliency, stress management, and stronger immunity. But what happens when you can’t positively think your way out of a difficult situation? Healthy positivity often gets lost in an ocean of toxic positivity.
In this article, we’ll be exploring how adopting healthy positivity is a better approach to improving your wellbeing and relationships.
How can positivity be unhealthy for you?
It sounds like a paradox, right? However, the adage that says “balance is key” shouldn’t be taken with a pinch of salt. It turns out that too much positivity can be detrimental to your health, especially your mental health. It may seem extreme that too much of such a positive thing could lead to a decline in wellbeing. But if you consider that anything can be unhealthy in excess, then you need to ask: when is positivity too much?
How can we recognize signs of unhealthy positivity?
Think about these statements:
“I just have to think positively.”
“Good vibes only.’”
“No bad vibes.”
Have you seen this before? These “positive messages” are seemingly harmless on the surface, but if we look closely at the cultural trend of radical positive thinking on social media, we need to reconsider its impact on our wellbeing. Moreover, mental health professionals are becoming more critical of this emerging trend and how it can potentially be detrimental to our mental and physical health.
Before we unpack what toxic positivity is, let’s have a look at the origins of positivity. The positivity movement has been growing in popularity since the early 20th-century and was birthed from Positive Psychology. The premise of Positive Psychology is based on the idea that psychological wellbeing is within our control and that happiness and unhappiness are almost entirely dependent on our ability to change our thinking and behaviour. While this is an intriguing idea to incorporate into our lives and it can certainly empower us to lead better and positive lives, the implication of this is unrealistic. It puts pressure on us to be happy even when we’re not, making us wholly responsible for the happiness and unhappiness in our lives.
So what is toxic positivity, and why is it harmful?
Toxic positivity manifests in many forms and can be played out in multiple scenarios.
- It’s always putting a positive spin on things regardless of how we truly feel in a situation.
- It’s faking a smile when we’re in pain.
- It’s burying our true feelings and telling our friends “I’m good” when we’re going through a tough time.
- Or it’s our friends giving us advice to “just be positive” when we share our difficulties.
Behavioural scientist and lead investigator at Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, conducted an experiment at the Science of People lab that reveals that we encounter toxic positivity weekly, and because we’ve internalised it, we don’t know how to recognize it. Psychiatrist Geyani DeSilva defines toxic positivity: “as insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding” (2021). The reason why it’s so harmful is that it denies our real feelings, dismisses our reality, and it filters negatively into our relationships.
Consequences of toxic positivity
Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD of Psychology Group report the detrimental effects of toxic positivity.
- Toxic positivity encourages us to feel shame when we feel a negative emotion that is deemed to be “bad.” Feeling pressured to be positive under challenging circumstances can ineffectually cause unhappiness. This causes someone who’s in the midst of a crisis to not share their difficult experience with others. In doing so, it exacerbates difficult experiences leading to silence, self-judgement, and shame. Consequently, our emotions intensify because of the judgement and shame we place on ourselves for feeling a negative emotion or thinking a negative thought. Studies have shown that shame contributes to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Reflection: Have you ever felt shame or a negative emotion about a particular experience, and you were silent about it?
- Toxic positivity causes you to suppress your emotions. There’s groundbreaking research conveying how damaging this can be to your health. In a study, 2 groups of participants were asked to watch a disturbing medical procedure. One group was told to explicitly show their emotions, and the other group was told to suppress their emotions. Once their stress responses were measured, the results conveyed that the group that suppressed their emotions had a more intense stress response, compared to the group that expressed their emotions. The study concluded that expressing our emotions plays an important role in our emotional regulation. Suppression of our emotions causes us to ignore our feelings and disrupts our ability to emotionally regulate, causing a variety of mental health problems. Another study also showed that overvaluing and striving for happiness can lead to depression. Reflection: Have you ever suppressed your emotions?
- Toxic positivity can hamper our ability to act out in emotionally intelligent ways. When we can’t manage our emotions in a healthy way, we risk affecting our mental health in negative ways. This study shows the direct relationship between emotional intelligence and loneliness, which conveys how toxic positivity can lead to loneliness. This can also lead to isolation and can be harmful to your relationships. Why? Putting up an image that you’re positive while going through a difficult time can come across as being ingenuine. This kind of false happiness shared with others is not authentic happiness. Furthermore, it’s not easy to maintain an image of fake positivity and it makes it difficult for us to relate to others and for others to relate to us. This can cause further isolation when you feel that no one can relate to your experience.
- It’s socially acceptable to show a happy face all the time. Happiness is something that many of us strive for, and when we can’t show up as happy, we can feel shame about our experiences. Christy Matta, trainer, consultant and writer of The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress insightfully says, “If you’re happy our social world loves you. Smiling, being courteous and friendly out of good feelings, expressing a positive outlook and generally being energetic is responded to positively.” Reflection: Have you ever pretended to be positive around friends or family?
When we pretend that we’re happy when we’re not, it also prevents us from building meaningful relationships because we’re not showing the fullness of who we are. We can’t build genuine connections if we’re being insincere with our peers. If we can’t be honest about how we feel, we can’t be honest with others either.
So, how can we adopt healthy positivity and why is it important?
Accept what you’re feeling
As mentioned before, when you deny the negative emotions that you feel, it only causes more long-term suffering. A healthier response is to accept the situation for what it is and give yourself space to express your emotions. Acceptance does not mean that you’re being complacent, rather that you’re recognizing your current reality instead of denying it. Speaking with others, journaling, and meditation are tools you can use to process and understand your emotions and thoughts. Negative emotions and thoughts aren’t inherently bad, they are signals that require your attention. By becoming more aware of what your thoughts and emotions are communicating, you are less inclined to suppress what you’re feeling. Noticing all of our feelings helps us all become more emotionally intelligent.
Adopt a growth mindset
Psychologist and pioneer of the growth mindset concept, Carol Dweck, in her TED Talk, The power of yet, encourages the adoption of a growth mindset in various spheres of our lives. In her book, The Growth Mindset, she explains that a fixed mindset is a belief that your intelligence, abilities, and skills are fixed, while a growth mindset is a belief that your intelligence, abilities, and skills can evolve. A growth mindset can also help us improve our emotional intelligence. We usually gravitate towards a fixed mindset when faced with negative emotions. Practising emotional intelligence can help us learn from our negative emotions and open us up to the possibility of growth amid challenges. Developing a growth mindset is a way in which you can grow more emotionally intelligent.
Share your experience with your community
More often than not, we isolate ourselves when we’re not in a particularly positive state in life; however, drawing closer to our community for support is a way in which we can improve our wellbeing. Clinical Social worker Heather Monroe recommends, through her extensive training and work in clinical and experiential modalities, that we share what we’re feeling with others. She says “[f]eeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety, while isolation fuels these emotional issues.” Find someone you trust, who will listen to you without judgement and connect to the people who you know will validate your experience and make you feel seen and heard. Speaking to a therapist is also a helpful way to cope with difficulties that arise in our lives.
Share healthy positivity with others
Once you’re able to recognize toxic positivity within yourself, begin sharing a healthy dose of positivity with your community. Once you’re able to practice healthy positivity, you will be better equipped to make space for the people in your life who are going through a difficult period. Giving space to yourself to feel all of your emotions creates a safe space for others to express their emotions. It will help you become a better friend, co-worker, and family member by supporting your loved ones during difficult periods.
You can still be an optimist and experience the full spectrum of your emotions. It’s possible to feel both sad and grateful at the same time. Healthy positivity helps us all to accept all our emotions without bypassing them. It’s about adopting a healthy perspective of positivity that is beneficial for you and improves the quality of your relationships. A healthy dose of positivity is vital to your wellbeing and living a balanced life.