Scrolling through a popular photo sharing site, I’ve often come across many profiles who have “Good Vibes Only” written in their ‘About Me’ section. I’ve also come across a lot of pages that share motivational content, in the hopes of promoting a positive mindset. However, the one common thing I’ve noticed on these pages is how they keep asking you to be positive in the face of adversities, and how there’s no place for any sort of negativity, as others may just have it worse than you. While cultivating a positive mindset is important, where does one draw the line? This is where the concept of toxic positivity’ comes into play.
Toxic positivity promotes the belief that no matter how unfortunate the circumstance, one should focus on the positives, and even look for them if there are none. Dr Mehezabin Dordi, clinical psychologist, rehabilitation and sports medicine department, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai, points out, “The biggest difference between having a positive mindset and toxic positivity is that it rejects the negative feelings and favours positive, often false, feelings.”
She suggests the following forms of toxic positivity you must look out for in situations:
• In case of an unfortunate event, you might be met with ‘just stay positive’ or ’look on the bright side’. While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can also be a way of dismissing your feelings.
• After experiencing some type of loss, you might hear, ‘everything happens for a reason’. Such statements, while made with the purest, most comforting sentiments, can also present as a way of disregarding someone else’s pain.
• When you talk about something that disappointed or upset you, you could be met with ‘happiness is a choice’. This suggests that if you are feeling negative emotions, it’s your choice to change how you feel.
“While these statements may seem like they come from a place of good intentions, they have a reverse effect on the person they’re directed towards,” Dr Dordi adds.
There’s no doubt that toxic positivity can be harmful for people who are going through difficulties. Rather than sharing authentic human emotions and gaining unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated. Dr Dordi explains, “When someone is suffering, they need to find support, relief, and love in their families and close circle of friends. But toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are wrong, thereby invoking a sense of shame in the person. It causes guilt and it avoids authentic human emotion.”
Toxic positivity as seen by dismissive remarks is a way to avoid confrontation or emotional situations. “When other people propagate this type of behaviour, it allows them to avoid uncomfortable emotional situations. But sometimes we internalise these toxic ideas. When we feel negative emotions, we then suppress them It then becomes a tool that enables us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, and denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight,” she states.
Recognising Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can show up in everyday life. Dr Dordi shares some signs to watch out for:
• Hiding or masking your true feelings.
• Trying to ‘just get on with it’ by stifling/dismissing emotions.
• Feeling guilty for experiencing negative emotions.
• Ashamed to be authentic with your feelings.
• Minimising other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements.
• Trying to make someone understand that “it could be worse”, instead of validating their emotional experience.
• Shaming others or making them feel bad for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.
• Ignoring feelings or things that are bothering you with an ‘It is what it is’.
Avoiding toxic positivity
While it may show up in daily life, toxic positivity can be avoided for the most part. Dr Dordi shares some advice:
1. When you’re facing a tense situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Here it is crucial that you become realistic about what you should feel. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Focus on activities and practices that will make you feel better. Listen to your favourite music, or watch a show to divert your mind.
2. Manage your negative emotions better. They can cause stress when unchecked, but they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life. Negative emotions can be healthy too, so don't deny them.
3. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel multiple emotions at a time, instead of letting them take over, and causing you to be overwhelmed.
4. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. Instead of suppressing them, allow yourself to feel every emotion.
5. Notice how you feel. Following “positive” social media accounts can sometimes serve both as a distraction and motivation to overcome any situation at hand. But, also notice how you feel after scrolling through these accounts. If you feel drained or guilty about something, which is looked down upon in those accounts, it counts as toxic positivity. In such cases, put a cap on how much time you spend on social media.
Spreading Toxic Positivity
Sometimes, you too can play a part in spreading toxic positivity. “The more you avoid negative thoughts the more likely they will take over your headspace. Therefore the important thing here is to not avoid them. It is important to acknowledge how you and others might be feeling,” she explains.
To keep yourself from spreading toxic positivity, it is imperative to understand that others may not cope the same way you do. “You can guide them with questions to gauge how they’re feeling, and just listen without giving any advice. When you’re helping them, take into consideration the overall well-being of the person,” she recommends.
It’s also important to reach out and ask if they need help. , “Ask them if they need any sort of support instead of generally stating that it’ll all be fine. And if you’re unable to give them the support they need, it’s alright to set some boundaries and say no. Remember, the whole point is to not fake any feelings, whether it’s from the listener or the one being heard,” Dordi signs off.