Are you a victim of toxic positivity?
I spoke with a friend recently; she is experiencing a stressful moment in her life. Crying, she released some emotion and told me about it. When she finished speaking, she wiped her tears and said, “I know I shouldn’t feel like this, I could have it a lot worse”.
Since when did the experiencing of emotion become wrong? When something comes to my attention repeatedly, like toxic positivity has the past week, I feel an urge to write about it. How many times has someone said to you, “Focus on the positive, it could be worse?", How many times have you said this to yourself?
In blog posts and articles, I write a lot about the power of positivity. Research shows us that there is a benefit in thinking positively and that continual negative thoughts are a problem. However, the silencing of feelings or emotion is not ok, by yourself or anyone else.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the forcing of positive thinking with little regard for the emotion felt.
Toxic positivity assumes that we should think only positive thoughts regardless of a situation, with the insinuation that any negative thinking or emotion is wrong.
Probably well intended, toxic positivity silences people. When you share your feelings with somebody and their response is to tell you to think positively, you might feel as though your only option is to shut up. I have most definitely been positively toxic in the past and I try my best not to be now. It is challenging to be a good listener, especially when the subject is sensitive, and you do not have the solutions.
The discomfort of negativity
Many people find discomfort in negativity. I wonder whether this is due to a pull to fix things - to problem solve. Maybe you want to be the person who makes everything better. The hard-hitting reality is, that no one is given a rush of joy through being told to cheer up or to think positively. Sadly, all this does is causes people to feel unheard, abnormal, and invalidated.
Most people, when they feel sad, seek validation: to be told their feelings are ok, to feel supported and normal. Holding space is challenging, especially when you do not have the power to resolve anything.
When you express negative emotion, it does not mean you do not feel gratitude for what you do have or that you are blind to the positives in life. We have space for more than one emotion at a time, much like you can miss a loved one whilst away with friends having a great time.
It is ok to feel miserable about a situation and express that feeling without reprimanding yourself or dismissing your feelings, by following everything you say with a positive.
Most importantly hold space for yourself. Those who practise mindfulness believe that we should experience every feeling without judgement. There are no negative or positive feelings – simply feelings.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone shares their feelings with you, at first it might feel uncomfortable to say nothing. You want to say something, anything to make it better. Unless you have specifically been asked for advice, responding with a solution – even as simple as ‘stay positive’ – is unsupportive and can cause feelings of shame. Practise saying nothing with small indicators that you hear your friend’s feelings such as ‘uh huh’ or ‘I hear you’.
Try to create an environment in which your friend feels safe, understood, and cared for. In time your friend may ask for your advice. When you give your friend time you also give yourself time to think of a solution that will work should s/he ask for it.
Many of us find it easier to understand someone else by relating their experience to our own. I know for sure that I share stories of my own experiences as I attempt to relate to others. This is not helpful when trying to hold space for another. Try to keep yourself outside of the circle and your friend firmly in the centre. In a similar way try not to reframe their experience to fit a solution. This might minimize the issue and serves you rather than your friend.
Active listening and holding space are techniques that take practice and a lot of focus. Sometimes the easiest way is to imagine you have a strong piece of Sellotape across your mouth and two exceptionally large ears!