When I first heard of toxic positivity, I thought the person was mistaken and just getting their labels muddled up. After all, toxic things are bad and positivity is good, right? When the topic cropped up again, I decided I needed to look into it. And it’s a thing! So of course, I was intrigued enough to find out more.
I discovered that toxic positivity is actually more to do with those little moments of false hope and fake reassurances that we are bombarded with. And it’s not a new thing. Far from it. We are all guilty of it, too. From sharing motivational imagery online (yup, guilty as charged), to telling someone there is plenty more fish in the sea when their fledgling teenage romance has crashed and burned, we have all indulged.
So does this mean that positivity and looking on the bright side is bad? No, not at all! But it’s good to know the difference between genuine positivity and toxic positivity, especially when our happiness depends on it.
Putting the word ‘toxic’ before ‘positivity’ gives it a rather negative vibe, don’t you think? But the clue is in the name itself as it can sometimes be interpreted as a lack of empathy, and often unintentional. This is because when we feel uncomfortable with a situation and how it makes us feel, our emotional reaction can be inappropriate.
The average person is not a trained coach or psychologist or counsellor, so when we are faced with difficult situations, we can feel unprepared or can’t find the right words to help. When really all we need to do is listen to someone, we will instead join the conversation with innapropriate comments. For example, when someone is sad or afraid, we will tell them that everything will be okay. As kind as our intentions are, they can be misinterpreted as a dismissal of their feelings, like we are telling them that it’s not okay to feel sad or scared.
Enforced happiness and suppressing our true feelings is not healthy and actually exhausting. Putting on a brave face and hiding inner turmoil to maintain a fake persona will come back and bite you on the bum. You can’t ‘ghost’ your emotions and treat them like a crank caller or junk email. You can’t press the ignore or delete key. The calls and emails will continue until you block the numbers and email addresses.
As kids we are taught from a young age to bury our emotions, such as boys don’t cry and girls don’t show rage and anger. It’s no wonder we grow into emotionally confused adults. I have spent my entire adult life afraid to show tears or emotions at work because women who cry or show anger are perceived as weak and unstable. Whereas men who show similar qualities in the workplace are seen as powerful and any tears just show they have a heart.
So here we are as adults, suppressing our feelings and trying to look on the bright side of life. But this will get tricky as life has a knack of throwing us a curve ball. We can’t constantly show a happy face when our emotions are doing the opposite. There is nothing wrong with experiencing or demonstrating emotions.
If we aren’t careful, toxic positivity can actually become harmful as we dismiss or ignore our own feelings or those of other people. We certainly can’t bottle things up and ignore how we feel… thats a slippery slope. When our friends, family or colleagues are brave enough to share their emotions and worries with us, we have to learn new and better responses.
Telling someone to look on the bright side or to stay positive can be perceived as cruel or uncaring. Putting on a brave face to suppress our own feelings is simply hiding how we really feel. We need to recognise this behaviour in ourselves and others so we can change our approach for something more appropriate, kinder and supportive.
As we become more aware of toxic positivity, we can take steps to avoid it. We don’t need to hide or avoid our emotions as it’s perfectly OK to feel scared, anxious, worried or sad. Normal, in fact. And just to make it even more confusing, you can feel negative and positive emotions at the same time. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the fear and excitement you felt last time you rode a roller coaster. Nobody said dealing with emotions was easy!
We also need to learn how to deal with uncomfortable and difficult situations when someone is brave enough to share their emotions with us. Sometimes all we have to do is listen. It’s as simple as that. There is no need to fill the silence with innapropriate comments that don’t help. There is nothing wrong with companionable silence.
Listening is the key. By listening to what our own emotions are saying to us, we can process them and deal with them. By listening to others, rather than replying with false sentiments, we can replace them with offers of help and support.
If we make more effort to recognise the often subtle toxic positivity around us, we can learn to avoid supporting ourselves and others negatively when times are hard. Before we know it, we won’t have to ‘stay positive’ and think ‘happy vibes only’. Our emotions are more valuable than that. We need to embrace them all … even the difficult ones.