Let's talk about toxic positivity.
Updated: Feb 23
Our minds are a powerful force and can affect everything; from our mental and physical wellness, to our quality of life. The health benefits of having a positive mindset have been scientifically proven, so it makes sense that in today's coaching culture, we're constantly reminded of this. I'm a firm believer in gratitude and positivity, however, lately I've been thinking how positivity is sometimes used as a form of avoidance.
Avoiding uncomfortable emotions is as equally detrimental as negativity, as buried emotions have a way of appearing elsewhere, usually affecting our physical health.
Personally, if something isn't going well, or I'm feeling upset, I like to feel those feelings and reflect on it. I take my time and accept that this isn't a time to gloss over how I'm feeling with positivity. I'll maybe complain a little, practice self-care for as long as I need, and when I'm ready, I'll take the time to really listen to how I'm feeling, to learn about myself, and to heal. From this process, I know I will emerge feeling physically and mentally stronger. And yes, much more positive. Nothing has been buried, I've given myself a break, and I'm taking care of myself and strengthening my character.
We all handle things differently, that's just my way. Overall lots of us have a very positive mindset, but I'm sure we can all agree that life has its ups and downs, and so it's important to know that it's ok not to feel ok all of the time. S**t happens. With this in mind, the messages we're fed about "looking on the bright side" can be really unhelpful, and I'd even go as far as to say they completely devalue what having a "positive mindset" is really about.
That's when positivity turns toxic.
“Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset." Dr. Jaime Zuckerman.
Being stuck in a negative mindset isn't good for us, but neither is hiding our hurt with empty affirmations. It's really important to be kind to ourselves and acknowledge the part in between the negative and the positive. It's much more than just "looking on the bright side" - it isn't black and white.
When our feelings are acknowledged and managed appropriately, allowing ourselves the time to do so; that's when we're truly taking care of our emotional health and creating meaningful change.
If something hasn't gone well, being honest about your feelings isn't the same as being negative. Of course you're grateful for what you do have. You know things could be worse. But you're still dealing with something tough and it shouldn't be glossed over. Doing so is simply doing yourself a disservice. It's ok not to be ok.
"Being overly positive and refusing to look at what’s not going well has a destructive downside that leads to avoiding the truth." Lyndelle Palmer Clarke.
Let's be clear, however, it's important to recognise the difference between this, and chronic negativity. Negative self talk can be really damaging and is different from simply taking the time to work through a challenging situation. Generally, you may not be feeling great about something, but overall you know it's temporary and that it will pass.
As with most things, balance is key. Sure, practice techniques to ensure you don't get stuck in a negative thought cycle indefinitely, but also don't skip that all important healing stage. And don't be afraid of negative emotions.
Another thing to consider is other people. Whether you or someone close to you is going through a hard time, pointing out the positives or highlighting what they have to be grateful for is likely only going to make them feel worse, and maybe even inadequate for feeling the way they do. This type of response is usually more about that person's own avoidance issues (cue self-projection). They may not even realise it, and they're just on their own journey, so don't take it personally. You just do you.
So when you hear that little voice telling you to "look on the bright side", tell it right back that you're busy taking care of your mental health and when you're ready to look on the bright side, you will. Take all the time you need. You're doing a great job.