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Health & wellbeing

How does positivity become toxic?

26 Apr 2023 | Written by Jennifer Cromar

Whilst “positivity” usually has very, well, positive connotations, it is true that you can have too much of a good thing. The Joy Club member and Psychotherapist Jen Cromar informs us on how positivity can turn sour…


April is wellbeing month at The Joy Club. Positivity is so important for wellness. However, this blog looks at when positivity becomes toxic.

The term toxic positivity is said to have been born out of the “positive psychology” movement around in the 1990s. This is when the ‘Law of Attraction’ belief system also arose. Even previous to this, after the Second World War as mental illness was on the rise, positivity was a very helpful solution. 

Pre-pandemic, positivity suddenly was everywhere. Stuff in stores printed with positive messages, cushions, mugs, rugs, signs, hashtag “good vibes only”. I am wearing a slogan t-shirt now saying “sunshine state of mind” and God knows I need the positivity to help have the energy to run! I have a “joy jar” on my kitchen table, where I write down on little snippets of paper things that have made me smile, laugh, have been kind or successful – my own personal collection of positivity. These little bits of papers are like little seeds of positivity that I am trying to grow. 

Positivity helps. 

So, when does positivity become toxic? 

The term “toxic positivity” was really thrown into the light via hashtags on social media in the pandemic. Toxic positivity is different from positivity. 

Just like chocolate (especially dark) is good for your mental health and wellbeing, so is positivity. However too much chocolate is not good (unfortunately!) and so it is the same with positivity. 

We do not have perfect lives and positivity seems to come from an unrealistic expectation for us to have and aspire to perfection. 

Let’s look at the words…

Toxic

adjective 

  1. Poisonous. “the dumping of toxic waste”.
  2. Very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.

Positivity

noun

  1. The practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.
  2. The presence rather than absence of a certain substance, condition or feature. “the first biopsy was positive for keratin”.

Toxic positivity is the pressure to only display positive emotions, surpassing any negative emotions, feelings, reactions or experiences. 

This then invalidates human experience and can lead to stress, trauma, isolation, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

For example, let’s say something bad happens, like loss of a job. You tell others about it, sharing means it is not all collected in you as stress. 

“Just stay positive, focus on the good” or “it will all be ok!”, they say.

It may well all be ok in the future, however right now, in this moment, you are feeling dread and fear. 

An acknowledgement of this dread will help you to feel valid in your experience, which helps the dread dissolve. 

So, if someone instead says “oh no, that is such a hard thing to go through. What happened?”, an empathic reaction showing understanding of your loss, you can release some stress. 

Therefore you are not suppressing. This helps you get to your own place of positivity, seeing a silver lining, knowing that it will all be ok. 

Toxic positivity can actually be a form of gaslighting. It becomes gaslighting when someone makes you question your own reality. It is the dismissal, the ignoring and invalidation that is toxic. 

Remember empathy

Maybe watch Brene Brown’s amazing video on empathy Toxic positivity is like shouting down into the pit that someone is in rather than acknowledging their reality of the pit, their feelings of being hopeless, lost, alone, too depressed to get out, needing help to make a ladder. No point shouting down “have you tired this?” or “have you tried that?”, or “it’s not that bad”, or “good vibes only”. You will seem incredibly dis-compassionate. They need help finding their own way to get out, true understanding and validation. From this comes connection, therefore less aloneness, and suddenly appears the first rung of the ladder out of the pit.

Instead of saying (or thinking)                      

  1. “Everything happens for a reason”                  
  2. “Think of the silver lining”                              
  3. “You’ll be okay”                                             
  4. Avoiding how you truly feel                              
  5. Looking down on those who have bad day 
  6. Getting annoyed by someone’s low mood       

Try…

  1. “It’s normal to feel not okay at times”
  2.  “How can I help you?”
  3. “You don’t have to go through this alone”
  4. Recognising that all emotions are ok
  5. Honouring someone’s truth
  6. Look at why you take this personally

Finally…

People are human and vulnerable, and that is wonderful. We can accept and cherish this. We can get positivity from being compassionate, it would be something that goes in my joy jar! Expecting others to be perfect, expecting ourselves to be perfect, makes us feel trapped, stifled, even inferior… we can let go of this need for perfect positivity at all times. Realness is not weakness.

 


Share your thoughts on “toxic positivity” with Jen and other members in the comments below…

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