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Psychologists say toxic positivity is on the rise – but what is it and why is it harmful?

17 March 2021

Ever since Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret became an international bestseller, people have been obsessed with the power of positive thinking. The book gained fame for popularising the ‘Law of Attraction’ – the idea that thinking negatively or positively can attract more of these things into our lives.

But a growing school of thought suggests this relentless brand of positivity can have a harmful side. You may have heard people using the term ‘toxic positivity’, which considers that if we’re always just looking on the bright side, we can fail to process important emotions like sadness, fear and grief, that ultimately help us to heal.

Whether you’re the type of person that always puts a happy spin on bad news, or you’re guilty of sharing an altered reality on Instagram, pretending everything’s always OK might not be so great for our mental health. And if left unchecked, experts warn that toxic positivity may even cause deeper issues, possibly playing a part in things like burnout, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.

What exactly is toxic positivity?

“Toxic positivity is going straight to those feelings that we naturally want more of, like joy and happiness, and wanting to bypass the emotions that are more difficult to sit with,” says John-Paul Davies, psychotherapist, counsellor and author of personal development book, Finding A Balanced Connection.

“The reason there’s a toxicity to it is that feelings are responses to things that are happening around us, so they need to be given space,” he explains.

Dr Lynda Shaw, a change specialist, chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist (drlyndashaw.com), adds that “as a society, we really like to use language like ‘positive emotions’ and ‘negative emotions. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as good and bad feelings. All emotional states are valuable to our human experience, and anxiety, anger and fear are primitive ways of keeping us safe and well.”

Toxic positivity can appear in lots of different ways: it might be a friend who dismisses your feelings and tells you to ‘look on the bright side’, instead of acknowledging why you’re upset. Or it could be the times you chastise yourself for having worries or fears, when others might have it worse off then you.

Either way, it’s that all-too familiar creeping pressure to move past your upset swiftly, and feel better before you’re really emotionally ready to.

Why can toxic positivity be harmful?

“In order to move through pain, you need to feel it – and positive thinking can become toxic if you’re pressuring someone to always see the bright side of things,” notes Davies.

Dr Paul McLaren, a general adult psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove (priorygroup.com), says: “While statements like, ‘Yes but look at all the good things you have’, have their place, they can be harmful to someone who is dealing with feelings which are appropriate and understandable – for example during periods of grief, or because they are suffering a depressive illness and really have very little choice about how they feel.”

Happy woman

Studies have found that hiding our feelings can cause significant psychological distress, and putting a happy spin on things can have a deeper effect on our psyche, messing with our ability to regulate our emotions.

“If you had a chronic physical pain that you ignored, it could quickly get worse over time without treatment – and the same can be true with our mental health,” says Shaw, who warns that burnout, disrupted sleep, prolonged grief or even PTSD can play into this.

While Davies says managing things like fear is important when ‘negative’ emotions become all too consuming, he believes it’s healthy to process your feelings, whatever they are – and anger and sadness can sometimes be useful too, as they can motivate us to place healthier boundaries in our lives.

“Feelings also give us messages about whether something is OK or not OK about what we’re feeling. Anger tells us when our boundaries have been crossed, so if we avoid [feeling] those things, we lose the benefit of knowing what’s important to us and where our values lie. There’s worth in that, both when it comes to our physical and psychological safety.”

Plus, experts say that feeling pain is extra meaningful, as it can make happy times all the more enjoyable. “Suffering gives us perspective, and some might argue, a greater ability to see and notice the joyous and positive experiences in life,” says psychologist Dr Courtney Raspin (courtneyraspin.com).

“The focus has moved too far onto ‘being positive’, and for good mental health, and should shift to ‘creating meaning’ through all of life’s ups and downs.”

Is toxic positivity is on the rise?

In the age of social media, there’s a pressure to spotlight the good stuff in life – and Davies says that kind of positive projection can quickly lead to comparison culture. If everyone else is seemingly feeling great on your feed, it’s unsurprising that you might feel guilty for having bad days.

“If someone’s in that headspace, they might feel like they’re doing life ‘less well’ than others – but it’s important to remember that we’re comparing our internal experience with what we’re seeing of other people’s lives on the internet,” says Davies. “Those feelings of anger, hurt and upset are important for us to see, because they’re shared by all humans, and we don’t want to take away people’s ability to feel the full range of emotions.”

Is positive thinking a choice?

“Yes and no,” says Raspin. “Some people have a more natural, in-built temperament that enables them to more easily find positive meaning in the world around them.”

Some people find it easier than others to think positively

“Adverse early childhood experiences, including emotional deprivation, bullying and excessive criticism can profoundly impact our ability to do this as adults. This is because our nervous systems become primed to look out for danger, rather than pleasure and joy.”

She says our minds and bodies may sometimes come to expect pain and hurt, so try to protect us by subconsciously actively seeking out threats. “In therapy, we help people to retrain their nervous systems, help them find a sense of safety, and enable them to more easily see and integrate positive experiences. It is only when our minds and bodies feel safe that they believe the world can offer nourishing positive experience.”

How can we overcome toxic positivity?

If you’re guilty of pushing positivity onto other people, McLaren says start by taking the time to really just listen to people.

“Pick up the phone and make a call. If someone has expressed negative feelings, take the time to understand what is going on for them.

“Don’t invalidate their negative feelings with toxic positivity, instead help them feel listened to and walk with them for a while. Try to get a sense of what it is like to be in their shoes.”

As an individual, Raspin says you can avoid toxic positivity by allowing yourself to honour all of your feelings – even the ones that make you want to crack open a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and listen to sad songs on repeat.

“That said, if we find ourselves unable to take in positive experience, being overly negative, and in ‘the victim’ position, I would encourage people to get some professional help with a therapist,” she adds, “so that they can retrain their minds and nervous systems to allow all experiences in.”

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