Why being positive can be toxic

Why being positive can be toxic

by Bianca Castro |

In the worst possible situations, we’re encouraged to remain upbeat. But is it good for us to try to be optimistic 24/7? Or is it really OK not to be OK?

Have you ever confided in a friend or loved one about a difficult time in your life and found their endless positivity leaves you deflated or annoyed? If so, you may have been on the receiving end of toxic positivity.

Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll described toxic positivity as ‘the notion that regardless of the situation, we should have a positive and upbeat mindset’.

Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll
Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll

And while some studies support the health benefits of optimism, making others feel a sense of shame for sharing tough experiences and expressing emotions that are perceived as ‘negative’, such as sadness, anger, frustration or jealousy, can be detrimental to their mental health.

What is toxic positivity?

It can seep into daily life so regularly and easily you might not even realise it’s happening.

Dr Arroll says: ‘Toxic positivity is often not of malicious intent. Many of us simply don’t know how to comfort and support others when they’re coping with difficult emotions or situations. We think it’s helpful to reassure our loved ones that things will be better tomorrow, but this can make people feel isolated and unseen.’

Spotting it

Here’s how toxic positivity might sound in some real-life scenarios.

When suffering a miscarriage, or loss of a child, you might be told, ‘at least you can get pregnant’, ‘you’re young, you can always have another one’, or ‘maybe it wasn’t meant to be’.

Following a relationship breakdown, ‘there’s plenty of fish in the sea’.

After loss of a job, ‘you’re too good for them anyway’.

A spat with a loved one, ‘it’ll all blow over’, or ‘try not to think about it’.

And during infertility or IVF treatment, ‘you can always adopt’.

Other phrases like ‘keep your chin up’ and ‘look on the bright side’ can also have the same effect.

Why is it unhelpful?

Toxic positivity can make us feel worse.

Dr Arroll explains: ‘The complete disregard for the trauma and true emotions of a person going through a hard time can compound their problems, and make them feel lonely, unheard and get in the way of them being able to regulate their emotions and overcome or accept this difficult time of their life. We should talk more as a society about how we can acknowledge all types of lived experiences — good and bad.’

What does toxic positivity do?

It can make someone on the receiving end feel upset, irritable, angry, confused and wary of speaking out or getting support. Acknowledging this might help us understand why we feel negatively towards a partner, friend, sibling or parent, and can be a helpful tool in identifying the cause of conflict.

Dr Arroll adds: ‘People can be wary or too afraid to speak honestly and openly about their feelings and experiences, as a sense of shame is usually the consequence of toxic positivity.

‘This can be accompanied with feelings of anxiety and a sense of isolation, which can contribute to emotional difficulties and mental health issues.’

The quick fix!

Dr Arroll says: ‘Instead of talking, listen to the person who is going through a hard time and let them sit with their sadness, grief and loss without judgement or urgency.

‘We don’t need to give advice or try to think of things to say to make someone feel better — all we need to do is truly listen.

‘We’ve lost the art of listening so it can take practice. When your friend or loved one is opening up to you, you might find your mind rushing ahead, sculpting a reply. If this happens, gently nudge your mind back to the conversation and be present with your loved one.

‘This will help much more than any well-meaning but ill-conceived belief on the importance of a positive mindset.’

Helpful language

Keep these useful phrases in mind when consoling a loved one through a hard time…

‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this.’

‘This sounds really hard.’

‘I’ll keep you in my thoughts.’

‘You have every right to feel the way you do.’

‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

Edited by Punteha van Terheyden

To find out more, visit drmegarroll.com

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