Every so often life just sucks. Many things can change, be disrupted, hurt and weigh heavy. It’s typical to experience highs and lows, happiness and sadness, progress and regression — we all require a little help from time to time — but navigating whatever it is that’s causing us difficulty can’t always be soothed with positive vibes.
Positivity does perform a meaningful role in our thinking and routine interactions, having hope, for example, is integral to being able to keep going and focus on better times, but we need to be mindful of the elements of toxicity that can develop.
Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren’t strictly happy or positive. | Very Well Mind — What Is Toxic Positivity?
Positive thinking is useful, but it comes with added pressure. It places the burden of getting through something back on the shoulders of those already struggling. Communicating to someone that it could be worse or that so-and-so is in a more dire situation, to count blessings or just think positively does not lead to any kind of solution. In fact, it possibly adds a level of guilt around feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed or depressed, etc.
Most people who use generic (toxic) positivity are well-meaning and want to help; I resorted to it in the past myself, but all this does is tell someone to be happy when they’re already in difficulty or troubled. Some people may not know you well enough or be unsure about what is appropriate — and that’s okay — but you can accomplish a whole lot of good with, “I don’t really know what to say but I stand with you“ or even “you‘re going through so much, but please don’t give up.“ You can be someone’s cheerleader by reminding them that they matter and turn this empathy into something actionable. Saying, “it could be worse“ is a whole different vibe to “I‘m sorry you‘re experiencing this. What will help you work through it?“ One makes it clear your struggles are seen, while the other suppresses them. One of the most beneficial ways to help is to listen and let people talk things through.
Avoiding our own negative thoughts or emotions and pretending to be upbeat is also toxic and potentially self-sabotaging. It doesn’t present an opportunity for us to improve things or obtain support when we need it — there’s not much room for working through something effectively. Pushing all negativity aside can be a coping mechanism but eventually, whatever it is we’re attempting to recover from or feel better about, has to be addressed. Toxic positivity, essentially, becomes an avoidance tactic that overlooks the benefits that talking about something and putting things in place to deal with our hardships can bring.
Accepting difficult emotions helps with coping and with decreasing the intensity of those emotions.¹ Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend. Getting things off your chest, including negative things, is like lifting a weight from your shoulders, even if it’s more difficult than pretending everything is fine. | Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look On The Bright Side — Psychology Today
Being positive is valuable, but all the good it can produce will be undone if its application is insincere, it has no acknowledgement of what’s being faced or it encourages silence. Nobody expects other people to resolve their problems for them but talking about our emotions and difficulties with trusted individuals can improve things significantly. Sharing something with a family member, friend, partner or therapist can often generate ideas and motivation to work through a problem. It can remind us we’re on the right track and help release what’s being held — sometimes that’s all we need to feel less burdened.
From my own experiences, mindfulness is far more powerful at holding space and providing support, especially when replacing generic (toxic) positivity with awareness, recognition and kindness. Instead of advising someone to stop being so negative, mindfulness says, “I can see this is problematic for you. Do you want to talk about it?“ It doesn’t declare everything happens for a reason and will work out in the end, it asks, “How can I support you?” Instead of instructing someone to look on the bright side or put a smile on their face, mindfulness responds, “It’s so hard to recognize the good right now. How can I make things less stressful for you?“ Additionally, mindfulness should include asking your trusted confidant before you offload to make sure it’s safe and okay to do so.
Negative emotions don’t need to be avoided, in fact talking about them to find a way forward should be normalized. Positivity should never be a pretence that encourages good vibes only as a default response — healing cannot begin if there’s no acknowledgement of what needs to mend.
Let’s leave toxic positivity behind in 2020, it’s time to revitalize mindfulness and actionable empathy instead.
Supporting Someone Through A Tough Time – headspace
NAMI Helpline – a free, nationwide U.S. resource that offers experienced peer-support guidance and advice
CheckPoint – global (by country) resources for mental health support
If you enjoy reading Transatlantic Notes and would like to show your support for the work being done, please consider making a small donation. Thank you.