Our psychotherapist speaks to Metro about why toxic positivity can be so damaging.
Right now, we can’t escape the missives screaming at us from memes, T-shirts and greetings cards. Be kind, be patient, be fulfilled… be happy. But the sunny spectre of ‘GOOD VIBES ONLY’ haunting social media, Zoom and IRL is just a push too far in what many of us can achieve, particularly now, mid-pandemic. I know I’m not alone in finding society’s relentless pursuit of happiness and the belief that we need to be kind all the time — about everything — exhausting.
In fact, so prevalent are these sentiments, the phenomenon has been termed ‘toxic positivity’. It can be found in the firmly held belief that any situation can be managed with a positive mindset. It’s in ‘live, life, love’ fridge-magnet philosophy. It is also a reason why #bekind was co-opted as a way of stopping anyone having any sort of difficult discussion online.
But at its most distilled, toxic positivity is the act of not listening and the subsequent invalidation of feeling — the notion that unless your suffering involves bereavement, financial ruin or losing your job/home then it’s inconsequential and you just need to shut up. ‘I lost my job thanks to the pandemic and have had to move back in with my parents. I’m angry about it, I’m sad and I just cannot deal with friends always trying to find the silver linings in my situation,’ says Thalia, 36, from London. ‘To me, there is nothing positive about this. So let me be angry and shake my fists at it all!’
Being unrelentingly positive is unrealistic and exhausting, particularly during this time. According to charity Mind, pre-pandemic one in four people in England experienced a mental health problem each year. Its recent research, however, indicates that more than half of adults and two thirds of young people felt their mental health worsened during the first lockdown in 2020 — a figure that’s likely to have increased since then. It means this pressure to be ‘happy’ — or to be seen to be — is nothing short of dangerous.
Chartered psychologist Dr Courtney Raspin believes our cultural obsession with being happy all the time — a wellness movement that began in the 1990s in the US — is something Western society in particular is guilty of, along with ‘a disapproval or avoidance of negative emotion’.
‘While it’s important to try and find the joy and positive things in life, it is harmful to disregard our negative feelings,’ she says.
‘Feelings are important sources of information. Negative feelings alert us to danger, harm and hurt. Without negative feelings, the entire species would have been devoured by predators.’ I confess, I have been guilty of wheeling out the ‘it could be worse’ card to friends (and to myself) but just because someone is worse off than you, that doesn’t mean your feelings are invalid.
Liz Ritchie, psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, lays bare the cost of suppressing negative feelings.
‘This constant promotion of “look on the bright side”, “things could be worse”, “appreciate what you have”, “cheer up”, can be so damaging in that we are not allowed to be honest about feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness and fear in the middle of a global health emergency,’ she says.
‘Positivity can become toxic when it masks our own reality and how we’re really feeling.’
But there must be a balance because some people readily lean into a victim narrative: permanently hard done by, always the worst off and the willing hosts of personal pity parties spanning decades. And no matter how much you listen, it’s never enough.
Don’t they need a smidgen of toxic positivity? ‘If you find yourself unable to take in positive experience, being overly negative and in “the victim” position, then life is a tough place to be,’ says Raspin. ‘I would encourage people in that position to get some help to retrain their minds and allow all experiences in.’
She says that whether we have positive or negative dispositions is often rooted in experiences from our formative years.
‘Adverse early childhood experiences, including emotional deprivation, bullying and excessive criticism, can profoundly affect us as adults,’ she says. ‘Our nervous systems become primed to look for danger rather than pleasure and joy. Our minds and bodies come to expect pain and hurt so they try to protect us by actively seeking out threats.’ Of course, rejecting pervasive positivity doesn’t mean we have a free pass to be foul to each other — but we should remember that somewhere between positivity and negativity lies reality.
Or, as Raspin describes, a sense of meaning. ‘The focus has moved too far on to “being positive” and for good mental health, the focus should shift to “creating meaning” through all of life’s ups and downs,’ she says. Ritchie agrees: ‘It is perhaps useful and realistic to accept periods of negativity as a means of self-improvement.
Right now we have the opportunity to harness our negativity to better understand our strengths when faced with extreme challenges. Sometimes it’s this negativity that makes us dig deeper to overcome difficulties.’ And this, strangely enough, is all the positivity I need.