Your request for a promotion has been rejected and you’re disappointed. Although your bosses praised your performance and hard work, they implied that there weren’t enough funds to raise your salary – but you’re suspicious.
After work, you moan to your colleague about the situation and they’re sympathetic. Although you just want them to listen to your frustration, they tell you to look on the bright side and point out that others have it worse than you, including those who have lost jobs during the pandemic. They’re trying to put things into perspective to make you feel better, but you end up feeling worse. Not only do you still feel frustrated, you feel guilty about the frustration too.
While we rely on others to get us through tough periods, we can often find ourselves falling victim to toxic positivity. But what is it and why is it so detrimental to our wellbeing?
Toxic positivity can come in the form of advice from someone else who invalidates your feelings when you’re feeling low, or stops you from feeling justified about your response to a situation. Without meaning to, they may make light of your experience and leave you with guilt over feeling angry, sad or irritated. Toxic positivity is also the notion that any type of negative emotion is bad, and we shouldn't feel it.
Watch: 'Toxic positivity' on the rise. What is it and why is it harmful?
“At some point in our lives, we’ve all hit setbacks. We’ve all known the sting of disappointment,” says Kelly Feehan, service director at the wellbeing charity CABA.
“It might be a redundancy, the breakdown of a relationship or even the loss of a loved one. But when these moments strike, our first reaction is nearly always one of sorrow, frustration or even grief. It’s also likely that in those moments, many of us will have been encouraged to look at things through a positive lens.”
When facing redundancy, you might have been told that at least you have your health. With a break-up, a friend may have told you that everything happens for a reason. Although these comments are often well-intentioned, more often than not, it can make you feel worse.
“Sometimes you just want to feel sad or angry. But you’ll be endlessly encouraged to push those feelings down and feel positive instead,” says Feehan. “This attitude – this perception that to feel negative emotions is, itself, a bad thing – is known as toxic positivity.”
Occasionally, seeing things from a different perspective can help to contextualise a problem. But when your feelings are fresh and raw, being told to be optimistic isn’t helpful.
“There are certainly benefits to being an optimist, and when facing tragedy or disappointment, the long-term goal is surely to overcome it and return to a more positive state of mind. But toxic positivity takes this to the extreme,” Feehan explains.
“We’re not talking about simply stressing the importance of optimism. Toxic positivity is where we minimise and deny any trace of negative human emotion, anything that isn't strictly positive.”
Watch: How leaders can harness empathy to lead change
In difficult moments when we feel low, we often just want to share how we feel and be supported in those feelings. People want to be listened to and feel validated in their experience, rather than feeling dismissed or misunderstood.
And toxic positivity can have a seriously detrimental impact on our wellbeing, making us feel guilty and invalidated, as well as encouraging people to hide their true feelings and emotions. It promotes a ‘good vibes only’ sentiment which can lead people to feel like they have to bottle up and ‘get over’ problems, rather than work through them with support.
It can be really unpleasant to be on the receiving end of toxic positivity, but there are steps you can take to deal with your feelings in a healthier way.
“Perhaps the most important thing is not to deny your negative emotions. Burying negative feelings can be damaging in the long-term, but when accepted and managed, they can provide important information, some of which can even help to inform beneficial changes in your life,” says Feehan.
“Following that train of thought, don’t be afraid to push back. If you’re receiving some advice from a friend or family member that – however well-intentioned it might be – is making you feel worse, be honest with them,” she adds. This doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational, but just explaining that you need them to listen and be supportive, rather than feeling pressured to show platitudes.
Finally, be mindful of where you’re looking for support. Following ‘positive’ social media accounts can seem quite an appealing way of coping with negative feelings, but they can actually end up being harmful in their own right. Uplifting quotes can often oversimplify problems, which isn’t useful.
“If looking at this sort of ‘uplifting’ content leaves you with a sense of shame or guilt, it could very well be due to toxic positivity,” says Feehan. “If this sounds familiar, consider limiting your social media consumption and try instead to have open, honest conversations with people that you trust.”
Watch: How to answer difficult interview questions