Positivity is good; but don't let it be toxic


Alamy Stock photo
Alamy Stock photo

At times, being overly optimistic — and glossing over negatives — can be just as bad as being pessimistic

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sat 19 Jun 2021, 10:46 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:16 PM

Last year, during a particularly low phase in life, a friend, known for her cheery disposition and ever-positive outlook, invited me to stay with her for a few days. Her intentions were noble: she didn’t want me to be alone in a vulnerable state, and assumed her happy company would do me a world of good. Grateful for her generosity, I agreed.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a nightmare. Given that my issues couldn’t be resolved by listening to chants on YouTube or having a glass of bubbly or indulging in endless chatter, I started withdrawing from conversations with her. There were occasions when I wanted to talk, vent out and process my muddled thoughts but, instead, I kept my feelings bottled up because I instinctively knew she wouldn’t understand.

One day, the pretence ended as she murmured something to the effect of, “If you keep talking about your problems, it’s only going to increase your stress.” It was my cue to leave. Somehow the alleged ‘negative’ solitude of my home seemed far more comforting than the actual positive bustle of her fancy apartment. At home, at least I had the freedom to bawl or be morose or happy, the way I chose to!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for gulping down the positivity pill. I meditate to manifest my deepest desires, subscribe to Instagram pages like ‘power of positivity’ and ‘my self-love supply’, like and share every Jay Shetty post and faithfully type ‘Yes’ to pop-ups that scream “Happiness is calling, type Yes to receive it”.

Unfortunately, none of them have worked. When I feel miserable, I feel miserable. So, had I forgotten to be happy?

The reason, as I discovered recently, had nothing to do with me. The way an overdose of anything good is bad, positivity has a side effect too. It is called ‘toxic positivity’. And thankfully, there is a growing realisation that it’s okay to not be happy, brave and cheerful all the time.

The Secret Syndrome

“Toxic positivity is the belief that we MUST put a positive spin on everything — even tragic or traumatic events in life. Of late, there has been an increase in toxic positivity as it has become an obsession and addiction to many,” observes Dubai-based Yasmen Ahmed, a UK-qualified cognitive behavioural therapist, clinical hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner.

Indeed, positivity often gets top billing in the ‘how to beat stress’ manual. The burgeoning fanbase of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and The Magic is also proof of how far the Law of Attraction (positive thoughts bring positive results and vice-versa) has come to define people’s behaviour. Practising gratitude, not uttering a single negative syllable and looking for a sliver of silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud are the keys that many believe will unlock the universe to grant your wishes.

To be fair, these are all fantastic, scientifically-proven concepts. A 2016 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from terminal illnesses over an eight-year-period, compared with women who were less optimistic. So yes, it’s great to be positive.

But the problem arises, as Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and co-founder, The Lighthouse Arabia, emphasises, when people glaze over their life with forced positivity, and deny, invalidate or dismiss their and others’ difficulties. “When you are focusing only on being positive, you are essentially saying there is no problem to be concerned with. Actually, some level of concern is needed in order for a resolution to that problem,” she notes.

We are all part of it

Knowingly or unknowingly, we are all victims of toxic positivity. Nasrin Modak Siddiqui, a Mumbai-based journalist, believes the trend has increased so much because the ‘self’ has become the centre of our thoughts and actions. “The side effect is that there is too much pressure on everyone to stay happy at all times,” she says.

Nasrin experienced this recently when an aunt was bedridden with a stroke. “Her being ill, in another town, was upsetting enough. But the unsolicited advice of relatives to ‘not stress’ was worse. I believe we all have different internal mechanisms to process shock and grief and so the advice (even if unintentional) can cause undue pressure,” she says.

It is important to talk about toxic positivity because it causes more harm than good to those at the receiving end. “Not sharing authentic, raw emotions may make us feel rejected, invalidated and not seen,” says Yasmen. “This will also not allow others to share their real emotions.”

Part of the blame lies in social media pages, YouTube channels and WhatsApp forwards that seem to turn everyone into pop philosophers who condense solutions for deep-rooted issues into listicles, fun videos and memes. And since it has become more acceptable to consume self-help resources without the embarrassment attached to them like earlier, everyone seems to be tripping on the ‘positive vibes only’ mantra.

“There is an increased pressure to say ‘I am fine’ — over the years, society has concluded that showing emotions is a sign of ‘weakness’. There is a thought that since others have it worse, they should be ‘grateful’ and just get on with life instead. Saying ‘I’m fine’ also allows us to not dig deeper into our own emotions, and protects us from feeling ‘uncomfortable’ emotions,” says Yasmen, who often has clients resistant to therapy because they believe they are ‘okay’ (when they are not).

Friends, family and the art of consolation

Ironically, it’s often family and friends who force-feed optimism and lead you to putting on a smile even when you don’t feel like it. Lisa Brightwell, MD, Bright Insights Consulting, recalls the time she suffered from post-natal depression after she had her daughter. “Everyone expected me to be happy as I had a beautiful baby but the reality of how I felt was totally different. Luckily, I had a good network around me and was able to deal with it but I often felt I had to pretend all was okay as people didn’t understand. Post-natal depression is a real situation that women have to deal with... You should not be ashamed of it!” she says.

What makes ‘toxic positive’ people difficult to deal with is that they are often well-meaning and genuinely want to help. Unfortunately, they don’t realise that repeatedly parroting, “Don’t stress, it will be okay”, “Stop overthinking”, “Don’t be a pessimist” etc just does not cut it.

That is the reason why Artur Akopyan, an entrepreneur, prefers to disconnect from the world when he is under stress. “I would rather watch a comedy film, listening to Zen music, draw or craft when I am upset. I do not stop myself from experiencing real emotions; I can cry or be angry or reflect on my mistakes and ways to avoid them,” he says.

Artur had a toxic positive friend who was ever ready with solutions for problems and believed everything would turn out good. “In the end, it was he who suffered from depression. Ever since, I try hard to stay away from such people. For me, the most important words to say are, ‘I am with you and we will pass this together’,” he says.

In fact, consoling and showing empathy is an art and a skill. The best way to stand by a friend, as Yasmen advises, is to create a safe, non-judgemental space for their emotions without assuming how they are feeling or telling them how they ‘should’ feel. “Everything they are experiencing is valid and real for them,” she says.

Lisa, on the other hand, emphasises on compassion. “You may not even have advice as sometimes there is not a lot you can say but actions speak louder. Making them a meal, being present and offering to help can sometimes mean more as the person feels you are there to support them. For me, I always feel better when a problem is shared with a good friend or family member, sometimes it just helps to talk it out or get a hug when you need it!”

Say no to social media

Even if you are not lucky enough to get a hug or a meal, turning to social media for comfort could be the worst thing to do, especially during a pandemic that appears to have fuelled toxic positivity to extreme limits. Remember the early days of the lockdown when every privileged home seemed to be baking banana bread and every bored influencer or actor did Insta lives to spread cheer?

Adding to the narrative were self-help gurus and high achievers who guilt-tripped you into signing up for courses to upskill yourself even as you struggled to cope with work from home. Their hustle prompted many to add a degree or two to their resume, but as Covid spread with increased death and untold economic devastation, baking a bread or learning to play the guitar didn’t seem so appealing. As Lisa says, “During the pandemic, I was just trying to deal with my own situation of home schooling and working from home. There was no time to think about trying to learn a new skill or the pressure to do so. I was just trying to keep my head above water during the week and trying to relax during weekends.”

Unfortunately, seeing celebrities and influencers lead charmed, filtered lives on Instagram day in and day out makes you want to put on a show yourself. Dr Afridi decodes the phenomenon neatly: “Spiritual bypassing and/or toxic positivity existed before social media; however, social media has played a major role in people feeling like they need to present a certain image to the world. They then have to maintain that image even on days where they are feeling low.” Earlier, we were comparing ourselves to our immediate neighbours, friends, co-workers and others that we met. Now our pool of people we can compare ourselves with is without boundaries, worldwide, constant and endless.

It’s all about the money

According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion and it certainly needs positive people to feed into it with tools and fancy kits to aid the journey. An amused Nasrin recalls getting an unusual PR gift some time back: designer gratitude journals. “The deal was sweetened with part proceeds going to a welfare cause but honestly they were too pretty to write in. I love journalling but I am happy to write in my old, simple notebook. I feel commercialisation has drowned out the noise of real wellness messages,” she says.

The way out from OD-ing on positivity is to deal with it just like any other mental health problem. I asked the experts to give a few tips. “The first step is to normalise all emotions, even those labelled as ‘bad’. Additionally, give yourself time and space to feel what you feel without putting a structured or limited timelines,” says Yasmen.

Dr Afridi stresses on accepting the situation objectively. “Understand and accept anxiety. Name difficulties and choose to focus on thoughts and events that induce constructive activity. Challenge negative thinking patterns and cultivate a sense of humour. Learn some problem-solving skills. Name your emotions and strive for authentic happiness,” she lists. “A life lived well will have high points, low points, failures, disappointments, joy and excitement.” Engage with each moment fully: no moment or emotion lasts forever.”

I was reminded of these pointers while watching the news emerging from India of late. Something akin to toxic positivity is happening there. When the country’s Covid numbers hit the roof and there was all-round criticism of the Indian government’s handling of the situation, there was a new narrative pushed on social media: the need to be positive and not focus on deaths and devastation. The government, in an apparent bid to stymie criticism, heavily promoted the positivity narrative, so much so that friendly organisations organised a “Positivity Unlimited” series with experts, influencers and celebrities. Needless to say, it backfired.

I guess, in the Covid era, the best way to stay positive is to choose to live truthfully. And not in denial.

(Lekha is a journalist based in India.)

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