My grandmother used to say, “too much of a good thing is not good”. I’m always reminded of these wise words of her when I talk about toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is when a person overemphasises a happy, positive and optimistic state by minimising or dismissing a real human emotion that may be labelled by some as “negative” (such as sadness, anger or disappointment). Thus, the underlying assumption is that despite one’s own or others emotional pain or difficult situation, you should only have a positive mindset and be grateful for what you have. Thereby leading to the rejection of experiencing any difficult or uncomfortable emotion in favour of a false joy or putting on a happy façade even if it is natural to experience painful emotions given the situation the person is in.
Lately, in these COVID times, I became even more aware of it. I often hear my coaching clients share how overwhelmed they feel by trying to balance the intensity of the on-demand nature of the virtual way of working with raising children and making time for self as well as other relationships that are meaningful to them. However, just after they shared what they are feeling, they will immediately state that they need to be grateful to have a job given that so many people lost their jobs due to the impact of COVID. Even though their body is tired and they are extremely exhausted, they feel they need to always “be positive”.
Having a positive mindset is in itself not a bad thing. Research shows that maintaining a positive attitude is good for mental health and achieving your goals. But what is extremely important is that it does not mean that you don’t acknowledge or allow space for your painful or negative emotions. Learned optimism must therefore not be confused with “just be positive” or “choose happiness”. Studies indicate that when we allow ourselves to feel our negative emotions and give ourselves permission to accept what we are feeling it is a more effective way of dealing with our emotions in the long term and supports emotional well-being.
Most people that reach out for support is not seeking to be inspired but rather to be validated that it is okay that they are not feeling so well (given the circumstances) and that it does not mean they are a hopeless human being. When we minimise other people’s painful emotions by putting a “just be grateful” or “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side” plaster on – we indirectly tell them that what they are feeling is not okay, which make the person feel worse and guilty about having those emotions. Whether we apply toxic positivity to our own or other people’s emotions, we are unconsciously judging the experience which hinders any form of emotional development for self or others.
The fact is that life is not always positive. No matter how the social media posts of people look like. Every person goes through challenging times. We all experience a range of emotions which you can frame as positive or negative. (I like to frame it as emotions that are more comfortable or uncomfortable to feel.) All emotions are valid. There is no such thing as a wrong emotion. The way you act out or express your emotions may be inappropriate or destructive, but we are only talking here about the emotion itself. Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge what you are feeling. Know that it is okay to not feel okay – it means you are a human being (welcome to the club 😉 ). By creating space for your own and others’ emotions, you are creating space for your or others’ authentic human experience. Thereby allowing what is to be and unravel organically. Therein lies the deeper connection and from that space new choices of engaging in a realistic way with the situation tends to emerge. Which then may be to change your perspective or mindset if that feels like a genuine authentic and supportive way forward.
Next time when you or a friend experience a painful emotion. Instead of immediately trying to rescue by reframing it in a positive way to avoid the discomfort that being with the emotions create. Pause, acknowledge the situation and the associated feelings it stirs up. For example: I can see that you are going through a difficult situation and that it makes you sad. What type of support do you need?