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Toxic positivity





Toxic Positivity


Consider this (true) scenario:

 

Liz (not her real name) lost her mother recently. She is, understandably, grieving but worried about her friends viewing her as too depressing to spend time with if she shares how she really feels. In addition to losing her mum, she is also the executor of the will, leaving her with the unenviable task of emptying and selling the family home.

 

During this exhausting time, she decides to accept an invitation to join a group of friends for lunch reasoning that it would be “good for her” to reconnect with them. She is usually a very upbeat person but today, it just feels too much. When her friends ask how she is, her eyes fill with tears. Instantly, her friends rally round her saying:

 

“At least your mum had a good innings”

“At least she’s not suffering anymore”

“Worse things happen at sea”

“ At least you’ll have a bit of money to go on a nice holiday now”

“Your mum wouldn’t want you to be sad – think of all you have got to be grateful for”

“Stay positive – you won’t always feel like this”

 

Those comments undeniably come from a good heart, but Anna definitely did not feel supported by them.



I have really noticed that positivity and gratitude have become buzz words, culturally, in recent years, especially in the “wellness” industry and on mental health forums. There is plenty of research to demonstrate that they can have beneficial impact on our mental health and can help us to flourish, (and you will see that I have written about them in previous posts) but taken to extremes, it can bring about guilt, denial or shame about the real feelings beneath the positivity.



Do we always need to present as happy?



“Toxic positivity is the pressure to only display positive emotions,

suppressing any negative emotions, feelings, reactions, or experiences.

It invalidates human experience and can lead to trauma, isolation,

and unhealthy coping mechanisms


Cooks-Campbell 2022

 

 

My feeling is that anything that encourages the suppression of negative emotions is likely to end in tears...literally. Suppression of emotions (long term) is liable to magnify them.



 Do all situations have a silver lining?


If I always present the “silver lining” in my life regardless of how I am genuinely feeling, I am not bringing the whole, authentic me to the relationship, and this can cause a sense of disconnect with others. In interactions with endlessly positive others, we can get a sense that their words do not actually match their mood even if they don’t say so. Ignoring hardships in our lives, almost as if they didn’t exist, is an avoidance strategy which can have a very damaging impact on our mental health.

 

However, we also know that endless rumination on negative beliefs, negative automatic thoughts (NATs) or complaints can keep us stuck in a dark place, stuck in repetitive negative cycles. Not many of us gravitate towards such people!!!

 

So, somehow we need to find a middle ground between negativity and toxic positivity…a sense of genuine reality. But how do we navigate this?

 

“Another mindset approach boasts a more realistic framing.

Tragic optimism’ posits there is hope and meaning to be

found in life while also acknowledging the existence

of loss, pain and suffering.

Victor Frankl (1985)

 

Dr Hannah Ryan adds that:

sociocultural pressure to remain unangered in the face of angering actions, unfearful when facing frightening or uncertain events, unhurt after hurtful experiences, empty of grief after loss and resolutely hopeful in the face of tragedy”.

 

Whilst “tragic optimism” might not be a very appealing term, it appears to be a much more balanced approach. Perhaps I could take the liberty of creating a new (more palatable?) term for tragic optimism?

“The Realistic Optimist”

Perhaps someone will quote me some day!!!


Feeling anxious, low, or angry are all part of being human, and according to Jessica Mead (2023) encouraging people to be optimistic and grateful when they may be going through very tough times doesn't encourage growth”. Some would even go so far as to say that excessive positivity actually undermines resilience.

 

To get the balance, we need to feel safe in expressing how we really feel, give space to be curious about any negative thoughts and feelings, allowing time for acknowledging them and processing difficulties. Once we feel seen and understood, we are far more likely to move on towards noticing all that is good, positive and optimistic in our lives.


 

Choosing this option might be uncomfortable but will empower us, or the person we are supporting, to find the “light at the end of the tunnel” and help us learn how to look after ourselves in the process.

 

What could this alternative approach look like in practice?

 

It means being courageous enough to get alongside someone and genuinely ask how they are doing. Examples might include…

 

“It sounds absolutely exhausting – is there anything I can do to help?

“I can see how much your mum meant to you – would you like  to talk about her?”

“I would like to be an emotional support if you would like that. What would that look like? Checking in with you every few days so you know you’re in my thoughts? Going out for a walk? Anything else?”

 “Don’t feel you have to answer but I wonder what is happening for you at the moment?”

 

For those of you familiar with Best Friend Therapy with Elizabeth Day (journalist and author) and Emma Reed Turrell (psychotherapist) there is an insightful podcast on this subject you might find helpful.



 

Remember – it is not our job to FIX people!



Anything that allows a hurting person to express their reality will bring about closer connection. Maybe we could have a go at being a Realistic Optimist? What are your thoughts on this?


Further reading:

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