It seems positivity, when misplaced, isn’t necessarily the wondrous ideal we’ve been led to believe. Applied at the wrong time, to yourself or others, it can be damaging, writes Siski Green.
“Think positively!” “Cheer up, it might never happen!” “Choose happiness!” We’ve all heard or said these kinds of things, whether to ourselves or to others, but positivity isn’t the panacea you might think it is. In fact, it can be the opposite.
From the day we’re born, we’re taught that positivity — smiling, laughter — is a good thing and that negativity — crying, complaining — isn’t. So it’s understandable that as adults we continue trying to be happy and, importantly, trying to show others that we are happy and thinking positively.
The problem is, though, that when you force yourself into positive thinking, it can turn toxic. By trying to ignore your so-called negative emotions such as sadness, frustration, disappointment and making yourself think in positive terms, it can work to invalidate your negative feelings.
A study found that those who often avoid negative or difficult emotions end up feeling worse in the long run.
It’s the same when someone else pushes positive thinking on you when you are going through negative emotions. It invalidates them. That doesn’t make the negative feelings go away, far from it; it can exacerbate them.
A study looking into the impact of accepting negative emotions rather than ignoring them, published in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, found that those who often avoid negative or difficult emotions end up feeling worse in the long run.
The results of this can be extremely destructive; for instance, making a grieving process more difficult or longer, making you feel more isolated and even triggering anxiety and depression.
It’s normal to feel down sometimes
There are valid reasons for trying to avoid feeling negative emotions — feeling sad, worrying or being disappointed by something is no fun, obviously. But these emotions are part of a normal, healthy life.
“We typically use the term positive emotion to describe being happy, hopeful and optimistic and the term negative emotion to describe fear, sadness and anger. In fact, all emotions are positive because they are our barometer to know when things are going well or not, a warning signal and learning tools to motivate us to do better,” says neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw (drlyndashaw.com).
Lately, however, world events have brought the issue of toxic positivity to the fore. If there was ever a time to be sad, disappointed, worried, frustrated and generally down, living through a pandemic would be it. And yet many of us have felt guilty or ashamed that we never ‘found the joy’ of being confined to home for long periods of time, or of now being able to travel or see friends and family.
For some, there’s a sense of shame because of the knowledge that there are others who are suffering far more — ‘I’ve got no right to feel bad!’ For others, it could be that there isn’t a single event or experience that can be pinpointed as the cause of our feelings and so we feel we can’t express it or even recognise it. For these reasons, we might feel reluctant to express our disappointment or frustration to others, so we grin and bear it instead.
Exacerbating this is the fact that social media has become such a central focus for our attention. Watching others flourish only serves to heighten our sense of shame and guilt about feeling down. And, of course, as women we are already all too familiar with feelings of guilt. Guilt for not being able to juggle everything, for not having the ‘perfect’ love life, family life, career, body and so on. “Women are often overly critical of themselves and in turn are more likely to suppress parts of themselves and undesirable feelings of upset, hurt or anger,” says Dr Shaw.
“Research by media agency UM found that 75% of women feel pressure to be perfect.” That’s a huge proportion and it’s damaging.
The flipside of optimism
What’s interesting is that despite this self-criticism, women are far more likely to smile throughout a day, compared to men.
One study from Yale University found that women smile an average of 62 times a day, while men smile only eight times. They’re also more likely to report optimism. While you might assume that this is good news, even optimists aren’t immune from toxic positivity, says psychology practitioner Cheryl Rickman, author of Navigating Loneliness (£8.99, Welbeck). “If you’re an optimist you may give yourself a hard time for feeling down as it’s not your default state, while a pessimist might blame themselves for not being ‘good enough’ to feel happy.”
Optimists may also cause toxic positivity in others. An optimist is often the first to offer support or advice to those who are suffering. “There are certain personality traits that make people more inclined to toxic positivity, such as being overly positive, optimistic and critical,” says Dr Shaw.
“Overly critical individuals are more likely to compare themselves to their friends and colleagues and try to suppress the onset of negative emotions. They may tell you that ‘things could be much worse’ or remind you of how fortunate you are when you’re feeling low, upset or hurt.”
Something for us to avoid when someone simply needs a friend to chat to.
Honour your emotions
Allowing yourself to feel the full range of emotions — wallowing, if you will, for a time in your sadness, frustration or disappointment — isn’t a new idea, it’s how we’ve lived since the dawn of time. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve all become obsessed with the goal of happiness all the time. But negative feelings serve a purpose.
“Humans have an inbuilt negativity bias, which means we are wired to respond more strongly to negative situations, comments and events than to equally pleasant positive stimuli,” says Cheryl. This helps protect us, by teaching us to avoid certain unpleasant situations (or dangerous ones), by helping us learn how to progress past the negative feelings and so on.
We are wired to respond more strongly to negative situations. This actually helps to protect us from danger.
Think back to times when you’ve felt negative emotions and how you’ve worked through them. Chances are where you either didn’t acknowledge them or where others didn’t validate your feelings, those are same experiences and feelings that still cause you emotional pain or discomfort. Other experiences of negative emotions, where you’ve accepted how you felt and talked it through with others are those you’ll have been able to move on from more easily.
The old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ makes just as much sense when applied to emotions. Give in to the negativity when needs be, find your way out of it with support and by being kind to yourself, and you’ll know that negative feelings aren’t something to hide in the future.
Let’s put an end to toxic positivity once and for all.