Escape the toxic positivity trap before it harms your mental health
Toxic positivity is an over-generalisation implying that being positive will help overcome any obstacle when repressing your true feelings can damage to your mental health
A few years ago, my son was auditioning for a role in the stage adaptation of the popular Disney Pixar movie Inside Out for his theatre class. In this film, human emotions such as joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust are all characters. On asking which of the characters (emotions) he wanted to portray, he replied, “Not ‘Joy’ for sure. She just grins throughout the movie and tries to dominate the other characters (emotions).” We noticed how ‘Joy’ tries to distract other characters with optimism, but ‘Sadness’ allows them to talk it out and even cry (this teenager is now a student of psychology).
Children also learn about behaviour and life through cinema. And that’s why I believe Marvel Cinematic Universe and Harry Potter series are such game-changers. They open a wide range of emotions for their characters including grief, depression, trauma, loss, which are all part of the grand circle of life. The character ‘Joy’ in Inside Out exhibited only optimism and cheerfulness, and that’s exactly what dismissive positivity, FONO (fear of a negative outlook) or toxic positivity is. Though well-intentioned, phrases like “Look at the brighter side”, “Good vibes only”, that we see on social media, can stir more despair than motivation.
Why? Because of the belief that one must always have a spring in their step and a grin on their face. Yes, we all want to hold it together, but is it possible all the time?
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is an over-generalisation implying that being positive will overcome any obstacle. There is no room for any other emotion. Dialectical Behaviour Therapist, Jody Kemmerer, says: “toxic positivity stems from wishing we were feeling something we aren’t. We aren’t comfortable with those tough feelings, so we admonish ourselves to feel differently”.
This is ineffective, dismissive and denies natural human feelings, which are often messy, tumultuous and chaotic. By denying it, we minimise and invalidate our own as well as others’ experiences.
What can we do?
Remaining positive in tough times is great, but repressing your true feelings is damaging to your mental health. Here are a few ideas on how to escape the toxic positivity trap.
1. Acknowledge how you feel
If something doesn’t feel right, allow yourself to acknowledge and feel it. Unchecked negative emotions can cause a deep downward spiral. You can heal only if you feel.
2. Watch your words
Watch your language with others and also with yourself. “It could have been worse”, “You’re still better off than others”, “You need to move on” or “Count your blessings” — can make you feel invalidated. Similarly, for others around you, don’t be too quick to give the “You’ll be fine” advice. Really connect with the energy of the person and sense what he/she is saying. Help them if you can, or guide them to someone else.
3. Positive affirmations vs fake positivity:
There is a difference between them. If you like affirmations, which are basically statements that train your brain through repetition to internalise positive and constructive facts, go ahead and use them. If they feel forced or ‘fake’, then reframe them. Instead of a vague “I am successful” statement, try “I believe in my capabilities and I have worked hard on this project”.
4. Avoid the comparison trap
Things aren’t always what they seem. What we see on social media is not the whole picture. It’s natural for people to want to put their best foot forward, but don’t be fooled. No one’s life is devoid of pain and unhappiness. Pro tip: if someone’s luxury-filled social media posts are causing you any distress, you have the right to unfollow.
Psychotherapist Babita Spinelli explains: “Accepting your feelings (and the feelings of others) without judgment is what getting over toxic positivity is all about. And while it may not come easy at first, over time, those difficult emotions will feel less difficult”.
It takes great courage to recognise your true feelings. Finding the silver lining can take time but it will build your muscle to resilience, balance and authenticity.
Connect with Delna Mistry Anand across social media @DelnaAnand