When positivity turns toxic

Being on Team Optimism is fantastic, but it’s also OK to not be OK – so why has the trend to be perpetually positive made us forget that? Health and lifestyle director Danielle Hine finds out

Ah, the Pollyanna syndrome – or toxic positivity (TP), as it’s now known. It means playing the glad game 24/7, regardless of how you, or someone else, really feels. The person dishing it out most likely means well, but guess what? Getting told ‘at least you’ve got your health’ when you’ve just lost your job isn’t helpful. Nor is hearing ‘negative thoughts attract negative things’ when you’re feeling down or having a bad day. Or (*grits teeth*) ‘you’ve got this!’ – something trotted out regularly to a friend of mine with incurable cancer. I mean, seriously?

We do it to ourselves, too. Jackie†, a teacher, admits she regularly berates herself for feeling stressed or anxious: ‘I’ll think: “Keep it to yourself and put on a brave face”.’ It’s like none of us can give ourselves permission to remove those rose-tinted glasses, even if they break or are hurting like hell.

Of course, optimism is not a scourge on society – far from it, especially over the past year – but what is bad is the belief it should be a permanent state of mind. In a TedWomen talk, The Gift And Power Of Emotional Courage, top psychologist Susan David called this ‘a tyranny of positivity’ and referenced a survey she’d conducted of over 70,000 people, in which, shockingly, a third of them judged themselves for having so-called ‘bad’ emotions, such as sadness, anger, even grief. ‘Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad,’ she added. ‘Being positive is a new form of “moral correctness”.’

Think that’s too harsh? Then know this: not acknowledging we have a wide range of emotions has implications for our mental health. A study by the University of California, Berkeley, found people who reacted to negative emotions with self-criticism, rather than acceptance, just piled additional stress on themselves. But those who accepted these emotions ended up with better mental health and more emotional resilience. Yet another study found that suppressing grief can manifest in physical or mental health issues down the track. Even worse, suppressing your emotions could actually decrease your life expectancy. So living life like it’s a positivity meme can actually be dangerous.

How have we ended up here? What is denial doing to us? And how can we go back to experiencing life fully, without filtering our feelings or putting a happy sheen over someone else’s?

Don't forget to smile today on post-it note

#Hashtagging happiness

It may come as no surprise that social media pushes TP. Hard. For context: the #positivevibes hashtag has more than 60 million posts. Any wonder we’re feeling so much pressure to (*jazz hands*) always put on a happy face.

‘Toxic positivity has undoubtedly always been “a thing”,’ says neuroscientist and best-selling author Dean Burnett. ‘But while we now regularly share our lives online, very few people have a “warts and all” approach. Meaning we see happiness as a default state, rather than a positive thing that happens when good things occur.’

Jess Baker, psychologist and women’s leadership coach, adds: ‘It’s like this best version of ourselves – and other people – is causing us to feel shame around negative emotions, making it harder for us to acknowledge we have them.’

Rosie, a writer, couldn’t agree more. ‘Phrases such as “everything happens for a reason” drive me nuts. What happens when terrible things happen – are we supposed to take from the phrase that we deserve it somehow? Some things don’t happen for any good reason – and pretending otherwise is wrong.’

The trouble with denial

Of course, this blinkered approach can be distressing if you’re on the receiving end. Sometimes it can even be enough to ruin a friendship – as graphic designer Angela† found. ‘I admitted to struggling after being made redundant on top of some family deaths,’ she confides. ‘But my friend told me to “appreciate the good things”, which made me feel completely invalidated – as if it was my fault for not bearing up.’ Meanwhile, Vicky, a freelance creative, who was dealing with PTSD after a brain haemorrhage, was told: ‘Don’t dwell on it/don’t be negative’. ‘I just wanted someone to say: “You’re struggling, aren’t you? Is there anything I can do?”’ she admits.

‘Toxic positivity places the onus on the individual who is having a hard time,’ says Dean. ‘They may be suffering for a range of reasons beyond their control, but to turn to them and say “just think positive” is to ignore all that.

‘And in a roundabout way it suggests that they’re to blame for their situation. After all, if you really can choose to be happy, then anyone who isn’t has chosen wrongly, and that’s on them.’

It’s also seriously detrimental to someone with mental health issues, he warns. ‘A person with a mood or anxiety disorder can’t change their state of mind. It’s like telling someone with a broken leg that the best way to recover is to take up jogging. And how does “choosing to be happy” help with a desperate financial situation or an abusive relationship? It doesn’t.’

Plus, Jess reminds us: ‘What I might find anxiety-invoking, you might swan through. But I’m still allowed to feel stress and anxiety.’

Everything happens for a reason words on a mobile screen

Getting the balance right

While turning from toxic positivity to perpetual pessimism isn’t the answer, it’s crucial to accept that just as we can feel joy, we all have negative emotions, too – they’re part of life. ‘If we deny ourselves the experience of negative emotions, our brain and its internal systems don’t get any practice in dealing with and processing them. It’s like muscles: if you don’t use the ones needed to lift heavy things, you get weaker,’ warns Dean.

Jess advises that instead of avoiding negative emotions, we should get close to and understand them. ‘Name what you’re experiencing – for example, sadness, anger, fear – and think: “How is this affecting my body right now? I can feel it in my tummy, my head is spinning, I’m drained…” Processing it like this can help you move forward.’ Deny it and it gets worse. ‘It’s like ignoring a deadline at work – the worry builds and builds,’ she adds. (Don’t I know it!)

What if you’re struggling and want to chat to a loved one but worry you might be drowned out in a shower of positivity mantras? ‘We have to be true to our own feelings and find people we can be true with,’ says Jess. ‘Some of my friends love positive thinking and it serves them well, so I turn to different people if I need deep, emotional discussions. People have different strengths and it’s for us to understand who we can serve and who we can be served by,’ she explains.

Another helpful tool is to give your mates guidance on what you need from them right now. ‘You might say, “I just need you to listen to me while I download my feelings,”’ Jess adds.

As for turning off your own TP tap when a loved one is struggling? ‘It’s about giving them validation by acknowledging how they are feeling right in this moment,’ says Jess. You could say: “I hear how you are feeling and it sounds awful.” Just support them and listen, so they feel heard and understood.’

So consider this permission to ignore things like: ‘If you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine,’ if you’re feeling about as sunny as a bleak winter’s day. Cos, y’know, crap days happen. And that’s OK.

Hand with a thumbs up

Jess’s tips on how to avoid TP:

• Try to steer clear of judging the person’s emotional reaction.

• Ask open questions and let them tell you as much or as little as they choose to.

• Offer support and a listening ear instead of advice.

• Don’t feel you have to say anything, just listening to someone can be useful and supportive.

• If you feel unqualified to help, you could suggest they speak to a professional, and offer to help them find a qualified coach or counsellor.

• Instead of resorting to a positivity cliché, I sometimes ask this question of myself or others: ‘What activities can you do today to feed your soul?’ It’s a practical way of helping.

Alamy, Getty Images, Plain Picture, Shutterstock, Stocksy, †Name has been changed