Table of Contents
There’s always a bright side to everything, chances are: if you’re going through a hard time, someone may have told you this before. Or: every situation has a silver lining, a kind-hearted phrase meant to comfort, but could actually do the opposite, when the silver lining seems absolutely impossible to find.
Yet, staying positive and being optimistic is a personality trait that society seems to praise. We compliment people for being so strong and staying so positive through troubles in their life. It’s a pretty intuitive thing: we’d rather spend time with a bright person than someone who’s gloomy.
However, there is also such a thing as being too positive. The term for it is ‘toxic positivity’, when positivity tips over the edge and becomes detrimental for our mental health instead. Here’s what you need to know about toxic positivity and how we can manage it in our lives.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity refers to being excessively positive in any situation (no matter how painful or arduous it may be) and wilfully ignoring any negative feelings you may have. It means thinking that all negative forms of emotion are bad for you; and that you should only focus on the ‘positive’ side of everything.
There’s a fine line between being optimistic and toxic positivity, but signs of the latter include:
- Dismissing negative thoughts or feelings, even if they may be valid
- Ignoring your problems in favour of appearing ‘okay’
- Feeling guilty about having any negative emotions
Optimists are positive – but not blindly so. Instead, they understand and acknowledge the challenges that they’re facing, and do not shy away from acknowledging the hardships in their lives.
Why is Toxic Positivity bad for your mental health?
We know that it’s impossible for life to be an endless stream of good events. After all, the past few years, with the Covid-19 pandemic, have been difficult for everyone – myself, included.
Much like everyone, Covid-19 took a huge toll on my mental health: the anxiousness of falling ill before the vaccines came out, the isolating experience of working from home and the inability to manage a work-life balance, and the fear of the pandemic never ending.
I took to scrolling through Instagram to manage my stress, following a whole bunch of accounts touting ‘good vibes’ and ‘motivational quotes’, thinking it would cheer me up. However, with each post I saw (with its beautifully designed typography and inspirational image), Everything happens for a reason, Smile even if you’re feeling down, It takes more muscles to frown than it is to smile, I found my mood plummeting even more.
While my thumb automatically clicked like on each post, there was a hollow feeling in my stomach at times… why can’t I be as cheery and positive as these captions suggest me to be? Was there something wrong with me that made me unable to see the bright side of life, when all these other people could?
The short answer: no, because negative emotions are an essential part of life. Yet, with toxic positivity, one refuses to acknowledge these feelings and the integral way they help us deal with the events that are happening to us.
By denying negativity, toxic positivity prevents us from processing our situation and our authentic feelings towards it. It’s natural to feel upset at a break-up; it’s understandable to feel stressed when your workload gets too much; it’s part of life to feel grief when a loved one passes on. Embracing these (negative) emotions allow us to work through the challenges we’re facing, so that we can grow and move on from the situation.
Toxic positivity can also create guilt about feeling any other types of emotions. Much like how I’d questioned if I was odd for being unable to think positivity, toxic positivity makes us feel like we’re doing something wrong if we’re not cheery through adversity. This is ultimately counterproductive and cause greater harm to our mental health in the long-term.
How do you deal with Toxic Positivity?
The first step is realising if you’re falling to the traps of toxic positivity. For example, if you find that you’re experiencing any of the signs shared above, it could be that you’ve been adopting a toxic positive mindset. Look out at the types of media that you’re consuming, particularly if you’re a heavy social media user; take this opportunity to clean out your feed and unfollow influencers who propagate this mindset.
As cliche as it sounds, embrace the fact that it’s okay to be not okay. It may take a while to fully accept this but once you do, you may feel more comfortable with your negative emotions and imperfections in your life. Allow yourself to acknowledge your tiredness, your sadness – it’s all part of recovering and moving on, from the challenges that you’re currently facing.
What’s as important as acknowledging your negative emotions is adopting productive ways to cope with what you’re feeling. You don’t have to deny that you’re feeling upset; on the other extreme end, you shouldn’t let yourself fall blindly and entirely into your pain either. You need to find a meaningful way to process your emotions: whether it’s working with a mental health professional to talk through your issues, having a heart-to-heart with a loved one, or even starting a journal to write down your thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, we may be unknowingly cultivating an environment of toxic positivity. Be mindful of how we validate our loved ones’ emotions as well, especially if they’ve come to confide in you about a difficult phase that they’re going through. For example, instead of saying “Things can be worse”, we can say “How can I help?”. It can be easy to slip into ‘toxic positive’ phrases, given how ‘encouraging’ they may sound. Focus on assuring your loved one that you’ll stand by them through their challenges and to validate what they’re feeling, whether it’s a positive or negative emotion.
There’s nothing wrong with being positive – but as with everything, too much of a good thing is never great for us. We need to learn how to strike a balance between being positive and living with uncomfortable emotions.
As we’ve shared, one way to cope with challenges is speaking to a trained mental health professional. If you think you could benefit from this, you can find psychologists and counsellors on the A Space Between therapist directory. We’re here to help, on your journey towards better mental health.
An experienced health & wellness writer, I am a story-teller at heart. For me, writing is a way of weaving together the little details that make our existence meaningful and significant into a beautiful, larger story.