Can being positive have a darker side? Elle Blakeman speaks with chartered psychologist and coach Suzy Reading
A few years ago I met a friend for coffee, where I confided that I was having a hard time at work. There had been a spate of redundancies at my company and I was feeling a horrible mix of dread and fear every morning as I entered my office. ‘You’ll be fine! At least you have a job!’ came the reply.
Welcome to the world of toxic positivity, a place where platitudes (preferably ending with an aggressively upbeat exclamation point!) reign supreme, neatly brushing aside someone else’s feelings and experience while paradoxically claiming the moral high ground (‘I was being nice!’).
So how can positivity be bad for you? ‘It can be hard to give voice to our feelings and reach out for support at the best of times, but in this current chapter of genuine collective struggle, it can feel impossible,’ explains coach Suzy Reading. ‘When it’s clear that there are others with burdens greater than our own, we can wind up feeling we don’t have a right to our feelings, let alone a down day.
‘With echoes of toxic positivity bouncing around us – “come on, at least you’ve got a job/a partner/flour in the cupboard/a patch of garden, you’re not allowed to find this hard” – we can feel shamed into silence. And it doesn’t help anyone.’
So what does toxic positivity look like? ‘It can be anything along the lines of: ‘Stay positive! Just think good thoughts!This wouldn’t be happening if you were thinking positively. Cheer up! Don’t worry! Things will be fine I know it!’ It’s the excessive oversimplification of a situation (my former companies’ complex financial issues were not going to be solved by my positive thoughts alone), and forcing someone to adopt an upbeat, optimistic mood state across all situations.’
But what if we mean well? I’m sure most of us have made similar comments to friends and family at with the best of intensions. ‘It might be well intentioned but the consequences can be deeply damaging,’ says Reading. ‘To be told to ‘buck up and get over it’ or worse to ‘be grateful’ minimises, invalidates and denies our normal and natural emotional experience. When someone has plucked up the courage to be honest about how they’re feeling, toxic positivity effectively shuts down open conversation, preventing people from feeling their feelings and piling on the additional burden of judgement, blame and guilt.’
‘Regardless of what you have heard on Instagram or in the media, it is not only ok, it is very normal to have down days, and right now, this might span into weeks or months of real struggle. What we all need is a medicinal dose of compassion, a kick-arse self-care toolkit and the love and support of people around us.’
So in essence, while we are often told not to bottle things up, this is only the case if the person we choose to share them with is able to listen without judgement. Otherwise we can add a layer of shame and guilt onto an already shaky emotional foundation.
‘It’s particularly exhausting right now,’ explains Reading. ‘No one has been unaffected by the pandemic, we are collectively experiencing layers and layers of loss. As humans, we grieve not only when we lose someone we love, but also when our safety is threatened, when our identity or self-expression is challenged, when our autonomy is compromised including our capacity to work and when our personal freedoms are curtailed, causing us to mourn the loss of imagined futures. These are all very real right now and we need human acceptance, not the “bright side”.’
So what’s a healthier alternative to dealing with our grief – and that of others? ‘Rather than aiming for ‘Positive Vibes Only’ which just isn’t realistic, nor is it actually good for us, let’s shoot for a more balanced mindset,’ says Reading. ‘No one is immune from stress, loss and change and the healthy human response to these challenges is to feel our feelings – the whole gamut, from the deep, dark and heavy ones to the lighter, brighter joyful moments. They all have their place and for us to feel whole we need to allow and accept them all, regardless of whether our challenge is larger or smaller than anyone around us. Our loss is still our loss, our hurt is still our hurt and we have every right to mourn these things. While it’s important to validate our feelings and acknowledge our loss, it is also helpful to stay anchored in perspective, recognising too the blessings in our lives.’
And if you find yourself tempted to reply with the words ‘At least…’ or ‘Just…’ to someone who’s just poured their heart out then my advice is don’t. Just don’t.
Five steps to a healthy mindset
Acknowledge your challenges, loss, stress or worry. Allow yourself to recognise the current impingements and know that someone else’s pain doesn’t negate your own. Comparison truly doesn’t serve anyone. We need to remember that we are all wired differently, with different circumstances, needs, preferences and inclinations. Some people love solitude while others genuinely need face to face interaction as much as they need food in their bellies. Leave judgement at the door and allow compassion and empathy to guide conversations and your own reflections.
Notice, accept and allow all your feelings. Ask yourself, how would any other human being feel if they were facing your current variables? Give voice to them with a carefully selected supportive friend – it is very healing to be heard and understood. Become skilled in bearing witness to your own emotions, giving yourself permission to feel as you do. Try some journaling to help you identify the various threads of your emotions, knowing there can be many present at once. Just labelling our emotions can help us feel less pushed around by them. Bear in mind that our emotions are not always the gospel truth and it can be useful to check in with ourselves and ask is this emotion appropriate to the current situation and is it in an appropriate intensity.
Make time and space to move through your feelings. Just as we need to digest our food, we need to digest and process our emotions. Emotions have an energetic charge. If you see something funny, feel a laugh begin to erupt but stifle it, the charge of that laughter doesn’t just disappear, it gets held in the body. To digest our emotions we need time and space to dissipate their energetic charge. Reflective practices like journaling can help us vent (just don’t read it back or you swallow all the gripes again). Breathing exercises and fluid relaxed movement can facilitate a more wordless release. Time in Nature can also be an effortless way to let go of what you no longer need. Or you can have a good cathartic release by watching, reading or listening to emotive films, books, poetry or music.
Bring balance to your thinking by not only acknowledging your challenges but also identifying what’s going well in your life. You could make a mind map with the different facets of your life and use it to celebrate the good stuff. This approach can help us put a ring around the painful parts, chunking them down so they don’t spill out and taint the whole. You could jot down the things you appreciate, the people in your corner, the blessings in your life or the silver linings to the tough times – the lessons or opportunities for growth.
Take tender, loving action. While it is healthy to feel our feelings we don’t need to be at their ransom all day long. We might choose to dedicate certain times of day to sit with them and express them. In other moments we might need some light relief. Just make sure you opt for healthy distractions rather than rely on crutches like caffeine to get you going, comfort food to soothe throughout the day, screens like a digital pacifier, online shopping for a feel good hit and alcohol to chill out. These might help in the moment but your future self seldom thanks you for these habits. Draw on the therapeutic power of scent, light, colour, touch, movement, music, connection, and Nature’s beauty when you want to lift your mood and liberally sprinkle compassion about wherever possible, all day, every day.