Have you ever experienced being around a person who remains smiling, happy, and positive no matter what their situation in life is? Mountains may fall, skies might shatter, lives might be falling apart—but this person remains freakishly calm and positive.
Perhaps, if you’ve watched Desperate Housewives, the character of Bree personifies what we’re talking about. In the face of the death of her husband, a sad divorce with the second husband, the unexpected pregnancy of her underaged daughter, and a failure in her baking career, the lady still manages to smile at every neighbour passing by—while gradually turning into a closeted alcoholic.
Now, one might give examples of the strength, resilience or simply the ‘positivity’ of her character and the likes of it, but do you realise that this overtly-positive attitude could actually be toxic?
Yes, you read that right.
Believe it or not, toxic positivity is really a thing
“The idea/practice of consciously pushing yourself into thinking positive, happy thoughts even in adverse situations in order to minimize real life’s genuine pain and actual reality is what toxic positivity is all about,” says Dr. Shweta Sharma, consultant clinical psychologist, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurugram.
Sharma adds that these toxic, positive thoughts are dismissive and shaming. Just like everything else, they can become harmful to one’s mental health when done in excess.
“When positivity is forced to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. Emotions like pain, worry, heartbreak, and fear are normal and genuine aspects of being a human. There is nothing wrong if you openly express them. But toxic positivity tells you that there’s no room for such painful feelings and that harbouring or expressing such emotions is bad,” she explains.
What causes toxic positivity?
Well, if you take a cue from Bree’s case, her mother’s constant feeding about remaining smiling, presentable, and desirable in every situation is what led her to become toxically positive. Hence, a childhood experience or simply the idea that expressing emotions or vulnerability is a sign of weakness can cause toxic positivity.
Apart from this, any trauma that you might have faced or the fear of being vulnerable and taken advantage of in that state can further drive you into the toxic-positivity mess.
What are the symptoms of toxic positivity?
Sharma points out the following symptoms that can help you figure out if you or a person you know suffer from toxic positivity:
i) Hiding/masking your true feelings
ii) Trying to just get on with a situation by dismissing emotions
iii) Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
iv) Minimizing other people’s sad experiences with ‘feel good’ quotes or statements
v) Trying to give someone perspective instead of validating their emotional experience
vi) Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
How can toxic positivity affect your mental health?
Ladies, unlike realistic positivity, toxic positivity is not harmless. After all, it is called ‘toxic’ for a reason. Here’s how it can affect your mental health:
1. It can make you depressed: “When people think that others expect them to not feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions, and the burden/pressure increases. When they cannot think positive thoughts, they feel miserable about themselves and land in depression,” Sharma points out.
2. It can make room for self-doubt: “Forcing people to use positive statements such as ‘I’m a lovable person’ can make them feel more insecure. And, if suddenly somebody doesn’t show love towards them they start doubting themselves. They have a constant need for validation of their identity,” she says.
3. It can make you suicidal: Sharma also mentions that visualizing a successful outcome, under certain unfavourable conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. If success doesn’t come to them, they become suicidal because they did not think about the alternative in case of failure. All hell breaks loose on them suddenly.
4. It can throw you off in the denial mode: According to Sharma, positive thinking can become a way of avoiding necessary action. Emotions like pain and anguish are also needed to be flushed out of your system. When you vent out, you feel lighter from the inside.
So, how can you prevent toxic positivity?
Considering the drastic effects of toxic positivity, Sharma suggests that the best way to bring it under control is to accept the fact that expressing difficult emotions helps in coping and decreasing the intensity of those emotions. Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend.
“Getting things off your chest, including negative things, is like lifting a weight off your shoulders. Emotions are not always “good” or “bad,” all positive or all negative. Instead, think of them as a guide: Emotions help us make sense of things. If you’re sad about leaving a job, it probably means that experience was meaningful. If you feel anxious about a presentation, it probably means you care about how you are perceived. So, act accordingly,” she explains.
However, in case, someone you know is toxically positive, here are a few ways to deal with them too:
i) Avoid playing into their reality
ii) Pay attention to how they make you feel
iii) Put yourself first
iv) Say no (and walk away)
v) Remember, you aren’t at fault
vi) Set boundaries
The final word
Being toxically positive can be prevented by aiming for balance. You have to accept both good and bad emotions rather than ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. If you’re being influenced by toxic positivity, it’s advisable to set healthy boundaries with anyone who passes judgment on your authentic experience and your expression of truth. After all, we get one chance at this beautiful, painful, imperfect life and we should embrace it entirely and reap the rewards of this bountiful experience.