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Toxic positivity: Four ways to combat it

There is a misconception that being mentally healthy means being happy all the time. The expressions are well-known: keep your chin up, or your upper lip stiff. Who hasn’t heard the advice: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade?

We’re here to suggest that you keep your chin where it is and do whatever you want with the lemons in your life. Good mental health comes from feeling a full range of emotions, comfortable and uncomfortable, “positive” and “negative”. Let’s not reinforce the unhealthy notion that adversity should be met with a smile. That might just be taking us down the wrong road. Let’s break it down.

There are many benefits of a positive outlook on life and seeing the glass as half full. A positive attitude can help you cope better with stress, build resiliency and even improve your immune system.1 Positive thinking plays an important role in positive psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on what makes people thrive 2, but that doesn’t mean that everything should always be seen through a rose-coloured lens.

Toxic positivity is being positive at all costs. It is the mindset that even when faced with hardship, people should always maintain a positive attitude. While toxic positivity is often shared with the best intentions, it lacks compassion and can shut down opportunities for connection. Toxic positivity can exist in your own self-talk as well as when connecting with others.

Here are some signs that positivity has turned toxic:

Another face of toxic positivity is what could be called compulsory happiness. It is the expectation that we be cheerful and upbeat regardless of what we’re really feeling. It’s the idea that showing up with a smile is polite, and that your personal hardships and difficult feelings should be kept to yourself.

Many of us have learned to swallow feelings of sadness, fear and anger. To keep calm and carry on. But when it comes to emotions, here are four good reasons to name it, not numb it:

1. Suppressing unpleasant feelings can lead to poor mental and physical health

When you ignore an uncomfortable feeling, it doesn’t just disappear into thin air. It might just build up beneath the surface and increase stress.

In fact, studies show that suppressing emotions can lead to increased anxiety and depression, disrupted sleep, and overall worsening of mental health.3

Suppressing uncomfortable emotions might feel like the easiest way forward, but it can actually make them last longer. By accepting the discomfort and understanding your feelings, you can begin to work through the stressors and heal from them.

2. Blind optimism can actually be dangerous

Emotions aren’t just things that happen to us. They are sent from our body and mind to deliver important information. It’s how we understand and evaluate life’s events. Feelings of fear, sadness and anger might not be the easiest feelings to experience, but they exist to guide us. By always looking on the bright side, we block out useful information that can help us navigate life.4

Yes, optimism can give us hope, but blind optimism can be problematic.

Take studying for a big test as an example. Being optimistic about the outcome is bound to relieve stress and help you focus on the test. But hoping for great results without studying or understanding the material will set you up for failure.

It’s not to say that everyone should live their life seeing the glass as half empty, but avoiding unpleasant emotions at all costs doesn’t do us any favours.

3. Pain is part of the human experience

It may not always be comfortable, but most of us have experienced grief, frustration, sorrow and danger, as well as the more pleasant emotions. It’s healthy to experience a range of emotions. In fact, it’s an important part of the human experience. It’s natural to feel grief when experiencing a loss, and it’s natural to feel frustrated after weeks and months of pandemic lockdown. As human beings, it’s near impossible to avoid unpleasant emotions Life is full of ups and downs, bumps in the road and obstacles to overcome.

Feelings of sadness, fear and anger are necessary to truly connect with one another. We simply cannot empathize and fully support others if we shy away from anything but happiness.

Uncomfortable feelings help us make sense of life events. Emotions guide us in decision making, help us develop empathy, and above all else, emotions are simply necessary for survival. Fear helps us avoid dangerous situations, anger can help us confront the uncomfortable, and grief can help us see what’s most important to us.

Even emotions that are sometimes referred to as “negative” are incredibly important to living a healthy life. They encourage self-reflection and can even be a catalyst for social change.

4. Compulsory happiness upholds oppression

If everyone is looking on the bright side, nobody is raising concerns about racism, misogyny, homophobia, or other social injustices. The quest for social justice can be powered by anger, fear and discomfort. After all, if everyone were happy all the time, nobody would feel motivated to make positive changes in the system.

By asking people to smile through the pain of discrimination and oppression, we are also asking them to ignore the injustices they face. If we want to promote positive change, we must create space in our society for anger, grief, fear and pain in general.

For Mental Health Week, we encourage you to #GetReal about how you feel. Go deeper and put a name to it. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed, creative, lonely, bitter, confused or powerful – let these feelings be your guide.