It's Mental Health Awareness Week and we want to address the elephant in the room - toxic positivity!
“Good vibes only”, “cheer up!”, “every cloud”... These phrases can be well-meaning, sometimes they can give us that little nudge to feel a bit better about a tough situation, but they can often sugarcoat or minimise our true experiences. And like everything, too much positivity can be a bad thing.
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult or dire a situation is, we should remain positive. It’s the ‘good vibes only’ approach to life. And, it’s a load of twaddle!
Now there’s an element that looking on the bright side or finding a silver lining can help us through challenging times. For example, not being successful at a job interview, can be tough to deal with but maybe there’s a positive to draw from it? Maybe it wasn’t the right time, a different opportunity will pop up that’ll be better for us or maybe the job wouldn’t have suited us as well as we originally thought. But thinking like this doesn’t really make the rejection feel any better, does it?
Imagine reaching out to a friend, we’re struggling with the idea of lockdown easing; we’re apprehensive, worried and a little scared of what a new normal might look like, and their response is “at least we’re not stuck in lockdown forever”, or “at least we can hug our loved ones”. This isn’t false, but have those positive vibes helped dissolve the anxiety we’re feeling or the fear we’re coping with?
The problem with “GOOD VIBES ONLY”
When we take a ‘good vibes only’ approach we diminish emotions, and for many of us, emotions are hugely powerful. They impact our mood, our ability to focus and concentrate on tasks, even reading a favourite book can be a little tricky, if we’re feeling angry, or grieving, for example. We can withdraw from social events, not wanting to bring everyone else down or just feel lonely in our thoughts - especially if the only ‘advice’ we get is “it could be worse”.
Things can always be worse but knowing that doesn’t really make us feel better. Instead, we might feel guilty for finding things difficult right now or worry that we seem ungrateful for not being more thankful for what we do have or even ashamed of having a tough time. All of which can be detrimental to our wellbeing.
The serious side of this is that we can be left questioning their realities when toxic positivity is created. We can question our beliefs, our feelings and the realness of them. When we’re told to be positive or that our friends want ‘good vibes only’ we might question whether feeling like this is normal? Is it real or are we being dramatic? Is it bad to feel this way?
Yes it is normal, no we’re not being dramatic, and no it’s absolutely not bad, it’s just not very pleasant - and with the pressure we’ve faced this last year, many of us are feeling the strain of positive thinking. Grace McMahon, Beingwell Life Coach
What does positive thinking really do?
When we think positive or stay optimistic, our true emotions get overlooked and are not resolved. When emotions go unresolved; we push them down, we try to forget and move on, they usually come hurtling back to remind us that we didn’t deal with it at the time (which often means we feel it stronger and longer).
What this toxic culture that is emerging actually does is cause us to believe that our challenging feelings, such as sadness, worry, disappointment or despair, are inherently bad. Now they’re not much fun, but these feelings are not bad, they are unfortunately part of life. But when we believe they are bad, we ignore and deny them space, causing them to reappear, bringing more challenges with them.
As well as this, it can actually cause us to feel more drained long-term. Toxic positivity is like an unhelpful coping strategy, to deal with our negative feelings we look on the bright side and push the feelings aside. Forcing a smile or trying to be optimistic, running away from our challenging feelings can be exhausting and frustrating - especially when we’re dealing with something out of our control or that simply doesn’t really have any - like bereavement and grief. And exhaustion and frustration combined can see us heading down a road to depression or anxiety sparking inside.
So how can we stop the spread of this ‘good vibes only’ approach and help others (and ourselves) feel alright with not being alright:
Listen and validate others feelings and experiences
This one is simple: listen, hear what someone has to say and explain how they’re feeling, and accept. Keep comments to ourselves, keep advice to a minimum. Have empathy for them, and remember people don’t need fixing we need to be heard.
Be true to who we are, as humans, there is no shame in having a bad day, shedding a few tears, or erupting into a fit of rage (we might need to make some apologies afterwards but we’re all guilty of an outburst every now and then). We don’t need to share it with the world, or even close friends, but if we do - don’t pretend to be positive if we’re simply not feeling it.
Find useful coping strategies
Whether they’re for ourselves or others, find coping strategies that actually help to resolve these feelings, make us feel better able to manage whatever we’re feeling, we don’t need to cheer up or smile through it. Reach out to loved ones for a whinge, take a peaceful walk in the park, cook a new meal we’ve never tried!
It’s ok not to be ok: Things happen in life that challenges us - that feels unfair and unreasonable at times. But that’s ok, we don’t need to find the positives in our turmoil, we just have to muddle through as best we can. Always feeling good vibes would probably get a little boring after a while, as humans we love a bit of drama (otherwise reality TV wouldn’t exist) and we like problem-solving - which is exactly how we make it through these difficult feelings.