Discover the impact of toxic positivity, and Rany Moran's top tips for breaking the cycle and helping victims address negative emotions more effectively.
By Rany Moran
“We’re looking for someone with a can-do attitude”, “always look on the bright side”, “you’ll get over it”... These common phrases sound positive at first, but if you analyse what they really mean, the first basically expects a person to always say “yes”; the second expects things to always be sunny (even when there’s rain); while the third expects one to instantly brush off any feelings of grief or sadness and just, well, move on.
WHAT IS TOXIC POSITIVITY?
Toxic positivity essentially refers to an unhealthy obsession to think positively—most of the time unintentionally and with good intentions, but something that seriously needs to be unlearned. If tragedy or a mistake happens, one must always be given the space and time to process these emotions or learn from lessons without having to suppress it all. Not being able to express, acknowledge or process negative feelings (like sadness, fear, jealousy or anger) can lead to an emergence of a grey personality that cannot distinguish right from wrong, real from fake, or good from bad. Having a positive mindset is important for mental health, but it becomes toxic if it originates from a fake sense of positivity that overrides real, negative feelings.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS?
Dunning—Kruger effect: For starters, if a child is raised with toxic positivity in his or her life, they are taught that emotional expressions are a sign of weakness, and can even get punished from being upset or angry, which can then result in further trauma or paranoia. This can then lead to Dunning—Kruger syndrome, a personality complex where one lacks self-awareness or self-assessment, with the inability to admit to any mistakes, wrongdoings or weakness and just pretends everything is a-ok.
Denial: The most common result, however, is that denial becomes a default reaction, where ignorance and blind happiness overpower actual facts, causing one to disassociate from reality for the pure and simple reason of always wanting to be ok.
Mental health issues: In more serious cases, acute denial where one chooses to ignore serious problems can lead to mental issues like depression and suffering in silence; the sweeping of dangerous issues (like domestic violence) under the rug; and even stall one's development or success, what with the lack of problem-solving skills and inability to communicate honestly.
Gaslighting: One of Oxford Dictionaries’ most popular words of 2018 in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration and well, politics in general, “gaslighting” is a form of psychological abuse by sowing seeds of doubt in another person’s mind. Through verbal tactics of denial, contradiction, misdirection or disinformation, the goal of gaslighting is to undermine and invalidate someone’s feelings which then leave the victim confused, deflated, anxious and insecure… affecting their own ability to distinguish right from wrong (even when they’re right) or reality from delusion. Considered a form of emotional manipulation, the term originates from the 1938 play and 1944 movie “Gaslight”, in which a husband convinces his wife that she’s hallucinating and losing her mind by dimming their gas-fuelled lights.
Toxic positivity can also lead to a person becoming the gaslighter, confusing people with lies to cover up negative situations, discounting and disregarding people’s feelings by forcing them to be ok.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
At work, toxic positivity can come in the form of a boss “encouraging” their team to stay positive and have a can-do attitude—even if that means smiling through double the shifts and double the workload. Gaslighters often can’t handle negative feedback, and in turn, aren’t able to confront or address employee concerns and constructive criticism, leaving workplace issues unresolved. When a team is burning out, the last thing they need is a boss that says “everything will be fine” when the company’s future is uncertain; “we’re doing great!” when you really aren’t; or worse “it’s really easy, you can get it done quickly” when the task at hand actually requires a significant amount of focus and skill. Toxic positivity can also come in the form of “you can work through it” when feeling sick or down, which can evolve into much bigger problems like chronic illnesses and severe burnout.
At home, unintentional toxic positivity is rampant without us even realising it. Things like “Work was extra tough today” can be met with responses like “at least you have a job!” which isn’t the nicest thing one needs to hear after an emotionally taxing day at the office. It’s ok to have negative feelings and feel unhappiness every once in a while—you need to allow yourself to process these emotions before being able to pick yourself back up again, versus brushing them off into a pile of unaddressed feelings that will certainly come back to haunt you ten fold in the future.
In relationships, trivialising or downplaying a partner’s feelings is a common defense mechanism that can spark even greater arguments. A familiar scenario is when someone accuses another of being too sensitive or overreacting when their feelings, worries or actions are actually valid.
On social media, there are over 115 million #goodvibes posts and that unfortunately, perpetuates an unrealistic illusion of picture-perfect happiness when in reality, Instagram is but the highlight reel of one’s life and not one’s entire reality. This can instil feelings of jealousy, inadequacy or insecurity into those liking these sunny posts.
HOW CAN WE BREAK THE CYCLE?
A great first step for yourself is becoming aware of the signs and symptoms of toxic positivity—from which you can then identify and address negativity masqueraded in positive statements. The person saying all of this may not be aware of the underlying meanings of their statements too, so bringing this up is a crucial step to getting educated too. Gradually, both parties will be able to break the cycle of toxic positivity from both sides of the situation, and can then spread the message of how to tackle such emotionally manipulative experiences with others. To fully overcome this, one must be comfortable and confident enough to express and address negative emotions, and accept that this is part of human nature and life. Once people can talk openly about their feelings without any fear or insecurity, and find ways to solve the problems or allow the space and time to heal from their pain, is when the cycle is officially broken.
HOW YOU CAN HELP A VICTIM:
Be realistic—manage expectations of a problem or task at hand and don’t be afraid of raising issues right from the start
Identify pain points rather than avoiding them—train yourself to feel more comfortable with negative feelings
Talk openly and seek support from people you trust
Refrain from being judgemental about other people’s feelings or challenges as that will only attract more judgement towards yourself from others
Avoid over complimenting people which can then encourage them to return the compliments unnecessarily
When someone seems down, offer your listening ear without judgements, agendas or the need to provide your own opinions or solutions for them (sometimes they just really need to let things out)
Acknowledge and validate people’s feelings as you would your own—offer empathy instead of sympathy
Encourage them to seek psychological help or counselling—professional help is a surefire way to address the problem and help one instantly feel better and less in doubt or overwhelmed
Never shame another for their mistakes or difficulties. Instead, offer encouragement, support or constructive criticism depending on your knowledge of the situation