Are You Suffering From Toxic Positivity?

The darker side of silver linings

Is toxic positivity real? If so, why is toxic positivity bad?

These are some questions that people raise whenever the topic of toxic positivity comes into the conversation. Moreso during the pandemic, when we were universally thrown into a difficult situation. Some chose to see it as an opportunity to reconnect with old hobbies or launch small businesses. Others tried to uplift themselves by counting their blessings — still being employed, in good health, with food on the table. This genuine feeling of contentment may encourage one to share that positivity with others.

In contrast to this, a 2020 survey conducted among more than 1,800 Filipino respondents reported that a fourth of them experienced moderate-to-severe anxiety and one-sixth of the respondents experienced moderate-to-severe depression in the early stages of the pandemic. A similar survey conducted among Singaporean healthcare workers found that there’s a high prevalence of anxiety among nonmedical healthcare workers. Another study found a very high prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms in urban dwellers in Malaysia.

Given the numbers, it’s quite jarring that phrases such as “Good vibes only”, “Just think positive!”, “Everything will be alright” and “Look at the bright side” are too commonly bandied on and offline. It’s almost become the default response when, in reality, it shouldn’t be. Here is why we need to talk about the negative side of always looking for the silver linings.

What is toxic positivity?

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“Toxic positivity is kind of a phenomenon where people have an obsession with being positive and seeing a ‘silver lining’ in everything, even when the situation may be a painful or difficult one,” Dr. Cherie Chan, President of the Singapore Psychological Society and clinical psychologist at Thrive Family.

For example, many people lost their livelihoods over the past few months. Yet we see Facebook comments saying they should appreciate the opportunities they now have: free time to explore hobbies, pursue passion projects, and more. While these may be true, it still doesn’t take away the fact that they’re faced with a sudden change in their life. Not to mention that these statements invalidate the anxiety that comes with any type of change. Encouraging people by saying, “Hey, at least you now have time to do so and so” doesn’t acknowledge the whole scope of what they’re going through.

So why should it be a cause of concern? “There may be a myriad of feelings that these uncertain periods can bring out in people and positivity may not always be a validating response,” Dr. Chan shared.

Emotions aren’t polar opposites. There aren’t wholly positive or wholly negative emotions. According to Psychology Today, emotions can be our guide in figuring out what’s happening in our lives. So-called negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety can mean that something’s important to you. Hence why it arouses a strong reaction.

It’s both you and me

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The reason why toxic positivity is bad is that you can be both an unknowing source and a recipient of it. “Sometimes being super positive may lead to you feeling a sense of pressure and stress to keep things ‘up’ for yourself,” Dr. Chan explained.

A self-motivated mood boost can work the opposite of its intended purpose. It can actually increase feelings of “loneliness, isolation, and feeling low” if you continue to ignore the true emotions you’re feeling in favour of willfully putting a positive spin on the situation. While having an optimistic outlook can be a powerful way to cope, it can also be dangerous when done in excess.

If you’ve heard of the phrase “lying to yourself”, it’s quite similar — you’re trying to trick yourself into believing that you’re happy or not affected when it’s perfectly alright to experience a low point in your life.

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However, this cheerful perspective can also be mistaken by others as being unbothered and unrelatable. “This may also lead to others feeling dismissed by you or stressed out as well to see things the way that you do even if they do not feel the same way.”

That said, positive affirmations aren’t bad. It truly depends on the situation and the way you deliver your message. Hearing words of encouragement “can help with a shift of perspectives for some people”, according to Dr. Chan. But more often than not, it contributes to a “sense of isolation” and “feeling alone in their own feelings and experiences”.

Words of (toxic) positivity

The thing is, it’s very easy for common encouraging phrases to be alienating. We’ve all heard the well-meaning "Look on the bright side," or "Everything happens for a reason." Then there’s the paradoxical message of "Everything will be fine, you are going through this because you can handle this." Other variations include “Good vibes only” and “Negativity is a choice”, among others.

While the message and intent can come from a good place, and these usually are, how these are interpreted varies. Some might feel empowered, but others can feel ignored. “I think the duality is important, so acknowledging that someone can feel sad and that is also okay,” Dr. Chan said.

Addressing the issue

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Now that we know why toxic positivity is bad for our emotional health, what can we do to turn these blanket statements into a better, more realistic light? It starts by acknowledging the sadness of the situation. “Knowing that this is sad and you can manage this is much more realistic, inclusive and empowering.” 

Psychologists often use this technique to help their patients. “Noticing our own thoughts and noticing other people's response to you can also be helpful in keeping yourself in check,” Dr. Chan explained.

It also helps to clearly label what you’re feeling. “Engaging more in how you feel and labelling our emotions realistically can help to reduce ‘toxic positivity,’” she added. Exercises such as journalling can help you organise your thoughts and put a label on your emotions.

When you do encounter moments when you feel somebody unintentionally invalidating your experience, you can let them know. Dr. Chan firmly advises on statements like “I appreciate your comments and thoughts but I don’t think this works for me” or “I don’t think this is helping me to feel better”. It’s a clear acknowledgement of what they’re trying to do and a firm signal that it’s not what you need at the moment.

“Acknowledging how you feel hearing these things can help give the other person a perspective that they may not realise,” she explained.

If you want to avoid being the source of toxic positivity, there are several ways to support a friend going through a difficult time. “Practice the concept of ‘being with’. Anxiety can bring up a lot of helplessness and pain,” Dr. Chan shared. “Giving solutions is not the only way to feel ‘useful’.”

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Sometimes, it’s better to just quietly be there for a loved one. “Not giving solutions but acknowledging what the experience is for them and for yourself could be helpful too. Just letting the other person know that they are not alone is probably the most important thing in a moment of anxiety.”

Moving forward

Toxic positivity has been so ingrained in us, but it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Now that we’re becoming more aware of mental health, adopting more realistic views of emotions and inclusive responses to them has become more important too. It’s better to be more mindful of how we react to “negative” emotions or situations internally and externally. Don’t ignore the bad in favour of only seeing the good — let’s acknowledge it, embrace it, and figure things out from there.

(Cover photo from: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash)

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