As a child I loved the Pollyanna Books. I thought she was such a clever girl that she could see a silver lining in any situation and I tried to model myself on her. the trouble was I was living in a very toxic environment and I, and the people around me, were belittling my emotions. If you watched "Inside Out" you will see how Joy didn't want any other feelings or memories other than happiness, she learnt that there is much, much more to being happy than boundless positivity. In fact, in the film’s final chapter, when Joy cedes control to some of her fellow emotions, particularly Sadness, this helps Riley to achieve a deeper form of happiness.
I am sure we have all experienced that moment when we dread sharing something that worries us with another person and know their response is going to wind you up. I'm sure they think they are cheering you up but being told, don’t worry, look on the bright side, it will get better, isn't actually what you want to hear right then! And it's a balancing act because although we need our feelings validated you can't sit in those feelings and stew. Sometimes we need to look forward but remember it's okay to take your time to get there and feel what you are feeling!
Toxic positivity is defined as the excessive overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state of being across all situations. As a result, toxic positivity causes denial and minimisation of your feelings and it does not validate the emotional experiences that we all have.
When anything done is in excess it is harmful and this is equally true of positivity being used to cover up or silence the human experience. This is when it becomes toxic. By not allowing people to experience certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and of repressed emotions. We have to remember the very nature of humans is that we get jealous, angry, resentful, and greedy, because at times life sucks and it is unfair. So when people pretend that they are positive vibes all the time and want to look on the bright side of life constantly they are denying the validity of our genuine human experiences.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life.
Hiding or masking your true feelings
Trying to “look on the bright side” by dismissing your emotions
Feeling guilty for feeling what you feeling
Minimising other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
Trying to give someone perspective- it could be worse-instead of validating their emotional experience
Shaming others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
Brushing off things that are bothering you with a “It is what it is”
Why Toxic Positivity is Bad for Our Health
When we try and force a positive outlook on pain this is akin to encouraging a person to keep silent about their struggles. Most of us don’t want to be seen as a negative or a downer so when the choice is between be brave and honest or pretend like everything is okay and we are managing, we might be tempted to choose the latter. One of my favourite authors, Brené Brown, speaks at length about how the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy and judgment. In other words, where there is hiding, secrets and denial, shame thrives. Shame can be crippling and one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can feel and being able to talk about what has happened and how you feel to people who are empathic and validating is a great way to take away the power of shame.
There are many studies that show by hiding or denying feelings it will lead to more stress on the body and results in difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings.
While on the outside we may appear cool and calm on the inside we are erupting! This can result in that coming out all at once - often to the wrong person.
I know when I am unable to express my emotions my body lets me know. I get cold sores, sty’s, mouth ulcers or sinuses. My body is letting me know that there is a lot of toxicity in me and I need to let it out.
In the work I do the number one thing I try and teach children is to have the vocabulary to express and describe how they feel, how their body is giving them clues (feeling hot, increased heartbeat, clenched fists, clenched jaw etc.) and facial expressions to emote (this can mean crying, frowning, smiling etc.) as all of these skills can help them regulate their stress responses. Children frequently think anger and sadness are "bad" emotions. We need to teach them all emotions are acceptable- it's what we do when we feel those emotions that matter.
It’s important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalising them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, healthy and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Once we honour our feelings, we embrace ALL of ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly. And accepting ourselves just as we are being the path to a robust emotional life.
Isolation and Relational Problems.
If we deny our emotions, we begin to live in authentically with ourselves and with the world. This can cause us to lose connection with ourselves, making it difficult for others to connect and relate to us. People start to see you as a tough, strong person instead of recognising that things hurt and matter to you as well. Often being vulnerable is seen as weakness but I like to see it more as a super power. One I am still trying to achieve!
It could be said that the relationship that you have with yourself is reflected in the relationship you have with others. If you can’t be honest about your own feelings, how will you ever be able to hold space for someone else expressing real feelings in your presence? By forcing a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness, resulting in superficial friendships.
Just remember that It’s completely normal to have negative thoughts once in a while. By paying attention and processing your emotions as they come and go it can help you better understand yourself, and those around you.