Why toxic positivity is dangerous and on the rise

Business psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw explains why toxic positivity is so damaging to wellbeing

Dr. Lynda Shaw, business psychologist and Founder of The Neuroscience Professional Development Programme, explains what toxic positivity is and how it can hold you back from high performance.

Toxic positivity can come in the form of advice from someone else who possibly unwittingly invalidates your feelings when you’re feeling low or stops you from feeling justified about your response to a situation with “things could be much worse” or makes light of your experience.

Toxic positivity also occurs when we feel we have to be positive all of the time and avoid feelings that are difficult to deal with, like anger or hurt. Often our self-talk may be around guilt such as “I’ve no right to feel fed up, look at how many people are suffering in the world”, or as shame “I should be doing so much better” or as low self-worth “feeling anxious is stupid” and so we swallow these feelings and try to project ourselves as doing better emotionally than we are.

Both forms can have harmful long-term consequences because toxic positivity inhibits people from feeling perfectly normal emotions, which, if left unchecked, can lead to longer-lasting deeper issues like anxiety, diminished self-esteem, and burnout.

Why is toxic positivity on the rise?

Many of us have suffered hardship, anxiety, and low mood during the pandemic but have forced ourselves, or been pushed or urged by someone else, to swallow those feelings and count ourselves as lucky.

We have also watched others seemingly thrive during this time, flaunting their new wonderful hobbies, revealing lockdown achievements, and enjoying their time as the world’s happiest family, often projecting false realities.

Toxic positivity has also flourished because of social media, which often only shows us at our best in the moments we want to share. This kind of positivity overload encourages a comparison culture and has made us far more critical of ourselves. We feel pressured to be positive all the time and feel like failures when we are having an off day or month.

Why we need to express our emotions

We typically use the term positive emotion to describe being happy, hopeful, and optimistic and the term negative emotion to describe fear, sadness, and anger. In fact, all emotions are positive because they are our barometer to know when things are going well or not, a warning signal, and learning tools to motivate us to do better.

Ignoring feelings can cause anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and inhibits our ability to regulate emotions. In fact, extensive research has been undertaken to study the effects of suppressed emotions. Being in a state of high stress can make us more susceptible to a number of medical conditions due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and being stuck in a constantly active sympathetic nervous system, will continue to increase our heart rate, prevent good quality sleep and disrupt our digestive system.

What can we do to avoid toxic positivity?

1. Embrace all emotions

All feelings are valuable and contribute to our human experience. Even ‘negative’ feelings like anxiety, anger, and fear are primitive responses that our brain releases to keep us safe from threats. Honour your emotions and allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel. All feelings are valid and normal. Feelings are responses, so they need to be given time and space.

2. Be authentic

Give yourself and others permission to experience all emotions, including ‘negative’ ones, so you can work through them and let them go in your/ their own time. If we don’t act with authenticity, it affects our ability to make social bonds and destroys trust in us.

3. Social media does not project a true reality

If you’re going through a tough period, avoid getting engrossed in social media and remember that more often than not, it projects a false reality of eternal happiness and perfection.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others

We have all had varying life experiences that have shaped us, and we deal with things differently. Suppose your friend responds to something in a contrasting way than you that does not make your response wrong. There are naturally inclined people to be happier than others and people who have had terrible experiences that have conditioned them to notice the dreadful events more than the joyful events. We feel things in different ways.

5. If you are talking to others, listen

Take the time to understand what is wrong, rather than invalidating their feelings with toxic positivity. Listen carefully and try to put yourself in their shoes. Enter the conversation without judgement and show respect. Validate their feelings by offering sympathy, showing understanding, and offering your help rather than trying to shut down how they feel and shake them up into feeling better.

6. Take healthy steps

By going on a walk to clear your head or having a chat with a friend. Plan something for you to look forward to but allow yourself to feel what you feel.

7. You wouldn’t ignore a physical pain, so don’t ignore an emotional one

If you had chronic physical pain, you would do something to fix it; we should do the same with our mental health. It is best to acknowledge our pain to work through it. Suffering allows us to learn and can give us a perspective to build upon.

8. Shift the focus on mental health

Too much emphasis is placed on ‘being positive’ in order to maintain good mental health. Rather than pushing negative feelings aside, give them space and attend to them accordingly. By shifting the focus, accepting and understanding our feelings can lead to powerful learning through life’s ups and downs.

By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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