Ever since Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret became an international bestseller, people have been obsessed with the power of positive thinking. The book gained fame for popularising the “Law of Attraction” – the idea that thinking negatively or positively can attract more of these things into our lives.
But a growing school of thought suggests this brand of positivity can be harmful. You may have heard people using the term “toxic positivity”, which considers that if we’re always just looking on the bright side we can fail to process important emotions like sadness, fear and grief that ultimately help us heal.
If you’re the type of person that always puts a happy spin on bad news, pretending everything’s always OK might not be great for our mental health. And, if left unchecked, experts warn that toxic positivity may even cause deeper issues, possibly playing a part in burnout, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.
What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is going straight to those feelings we want more of, like joy and happiness, and wanting to bypass emotions that are more difficult to sit with,” says John-Paul Davies, psychotherapist, counsellor and author of personal development book Finding A Balanced Connection.
“The reason there’s a toxicity to it is that feelings are responses to things that are happening around us, so they need to be given space,” he explains.
Dr Lynda Shaw, a chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, adds that “as a society, we like to use language like ‘positive emotions’ and ‘negative emotions’. But there’s no such thing as good and bad feelings. All emotional states are valuable to our human experience. Anxiety, anger and fear are primitive ways of keeping us safe and well”.
Toxic positivity can appear in lots of different ways: it might be a friend who dismisses your feelings and tells you to “look on the bright side”, instead of acknowledging why you’re upset. Or it could be the times you chastise yourself for having worries or fears, when others might have it worse off.
Either way, it’s that creeping pressure to move past your upset swiftly.
Why can toxic positivity be harmful?
“In order to move through pain, you need to feel it – and positive thinking can become toxic if you’re pressuring someone to always see the bright side,” notes Davies.
Dr Paul McLaren, a general adult psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, says: “While statements like, ‘Yes but look at all the good things you have’, have their place, they can be harmful to someone who is dealing with feelings that are appropriate and understandable – for example during periods of grief, or because they are suffering a depressive illness and have very little choice about how they feel.”
Studies have found that putting a happy spin on things can have a deeper effect on our psyche.
“If you had a chronic physical pain that you ignored it could quickly get worse without treatment. The same can be true with our mental health,” says Shaw, who warns that burnout, disrupted sleep, prolonged grief or even PTSD can play into this.
Davies believes it’s healthy to process feelings – and anger and sadness can sometimes be useful, as they can motivate us to place healthier boundaries.
Plus, experts say feeling pain is meaningful as it can make happy times all the more enjoyable. “Suffering gives us perspective and, some might argue, a greater ability to notice the joyous and positive experiences in life,” says psychologist Dr Courtney Raspin.
Is it on the rise?
In the age of social media, there’s a pressure to spotlight the good stuff in life – and Davies says that kind of positive projection can quickly lead to comparison culture. If everyone else is seemingly feeling great on your feed, it’s unsurprising that you might feel guilty for having bad days.
“If someone’s in that headspace, they might feel like they’re doing life ‘less well’ than others – but it’s important to remember that we’re comparing our internal experience with what we’re seeing of other people’s lives on the internet,” says Davies.
Is positive thinking a choice?
“Yes and no,” says Raspin. “Some people have a more natural, in-built temperament that enables them to more easily find positive meaning in the world around them.”
“Adverse early childhood experiences, including emotional deprivation, bullying and excessive criticism can profoundly impact our ability to do this as adults. This is because our nervous systems become primed to look out for danger, rather than pleasure and joy.”
“In therapy, we help people to retrain their nervous systems, help them find a sense of safety, and enable them to more easily see and integrate positive experiences. It is only when our minds and bodies feel safe that they believe the world can offer nourishing positive experience.”
How can we overcome toxic positivity?
If you’re guilty of pushing positivity onto other people, McLaren says start by taking the time to really listen to people.
“Pick up the phone and make a call. If someone has expressed negative feelings, take the time to understand what is going on for them. Don’t invalidate their negative feelings with toxic positivity, instead help them feel listened to.”
As an individual, Raspin says you can avoid toxic positivity by allowing yourself to honour all of your feelings – even the ones that make you want to crack open a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and listen to sad songs on repeat.
“That said, if we find ourselves unable to take in positive experience, being overly negative, and in ‘the victim’ position, I would encourage people to get some professional help with a therapist,” she adds, “so they can retrain their minds and nervous systems to allow all experiences in.”
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