What is toxic positivity, and are you a culprit of it?

Constantly bombarded as we are with slogans about positive thinking, is there a dark side to trying to channel good vibes only?

"The assumption that despite our emotional pain or challenges in life, we should only have a positive mindset," explains Christine Kritzas, Ccounselling Ppsychologist and Eeducation Ddirector at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing. Nathan Dumlao/ Unsplash
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Self-help messages promoting positive thinking have never been more omnipresent. They are coming at us via audiobooks and podcasts, gratitude journals, affirmation apps, guided meditations and TED Talks. Even slogan tees and interior wall hangings are singing the commandments of the positive thinking movement.

For the most part, it is magnificent. Mainstreaming the notion that our mental health requires the same kind of active approach as our physical health not only transforms lives, but can also save them. But is there a dark side to good vibes only?

When positivity becomes toxic

In a nutshell, toxic positivity is "the assumption that despite our emotional pain or challenges in life, we should only have a positive mindset", explains Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist and education director at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Well-being in Dubai.

Oddly enough, at a time when we’re bombarded with so much global pain and suffering – lives lost and health scares, unemployment and financial strain, social isolation and domestic suffering – excessive positivity is becoming more damaging than ever before.

"The pandemic has amplified toxic positivity," says Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, hypnotherapist, holistic wellness coach and founder of Illuminations Well-Being Centre in the UAE. "Many people are trying to deal with a situation they've never experienced before ... platitudes such as 'it could be worse' do a disservice to people who are genuinely feeling upset or fearful."

Christine Kritzas is a counselling psychologist and education director at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing. Courtesy Christine Kritzas

Rebecca Jones, 30, recalls how she became a culprit of toxic positivity without even realising. “When news of more restrictions was announced a while back, I was trying to cheer some of my friends up over WhatsApp chat by saying: ‘Well, at least we have a roof over our heads.’ One woman snapped back that she was sick of being told how to feel. I was initially upset by the remark, but after looking into the term ‘toxic positivity’. I understood where she was coming from.”

Jones is not the only one who's been exposed to the concept amid the ongoing pandemic. Google Trends shows that searches around the term soared worldwide in the summer of 2020, and it's still tapped into the search bar at a much more frequent rate than in the years before Covid.

How negativity became blasphemous

But how did we get here – a universe where we're not allowed to think negative thoughts, let alone express them? "The 'positive vibes' movement entered pop culture with the book The Secret that essentially promised that you could manifest things you wanted if you felt positive emotions," says Punjabi.

Author Rhonda Byrne was not the first person to preach the powers of attraction, but she can be held accountable for bringing them into the mainstream. Mention the 2006 book at your next dinner party and become privy to just how embedded it is within the millennial experience; everyone has a story to tell.

Byrne's follow-up book The Greatest Secret was released last year, propelling the author – and her school of thought – into the self-help zeitgeist once again.

The flipside to her manifesting mantra? Negative thoughts and emotions will attract more negative events into your life. And for those who live by the so-called law of attraction, negativity becomes practically sacrilegious.

Louise Lawlor, 31, has followed The Secret's ideology on-off for years. She explains, "you instantly feel guilty if you moan or complain about anything, and then a sort of panic sets in that even worse things will happen now you've 'put it out to the universe'. It can be exhausting."

Young man holding flower bouquet in front of her face, while standing against a light blue background.

The dark side of the bright side

But why exactly is this kind of toxic positivity so bad for us? “When positivity is used to invalidate, deny or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic,” says Kritzas.

"Not only does it deny us an authentic human experience, but it also increases our chances of experiencing a secondary emotion such as shame ... And ongoing suppression of our emotions can lead to more serious mental health illnesses," she says.

Many people are trying to deal with a situation they've never experienced before ... platitudes such as 'it could be worse' do a disservice to people who are genuinely feeling upset or fearful

It's a claim that's backed up by numerous studies. A 1997 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology demonstrated that hiding one's true feelings – especially negative ones – produces physiological effects in subjects that can be linked to illness.

Steam ahead to 2017, and research conducted by the University of California – Berkeley, found that pressure to feel upbeat can actually make people feel downbeat while "people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health". A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the following year, meanwhile, linked emotion suppression to anxiety and depression, and concluded: "Individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors."

Posing under the guise of good mental health practice, forced positivity and denial of more unpleasant emotions can actually be detrimental to our health in the long term.

Staying positive about positivity

While a positive mindset is still the ideal option for a happier and healthier life, making room to work through negative emotions as they happen strikes the ideal balance.

Kritzas suggests we strive to be “realistic optimists”. She summarises this as “someone who is in a dark tunnel and can admit they are in a dark tunnel, but ultimately has hope there is light at the end of it”.

The first step is recognising if you're a culprit of toxic positivity, relying on pithy phrases such as 'look on the bright side' and 'everything happens for a reason'. Whether convincing yourself or others, pushing down genuine emotion in place of such phrases can be a clue.

Feelings of guilt and shame towards negative emotions – especially feelings of being ungrateful – can also be a sign, as can shaming or guilt-tripping others for expressing anything less than good vibes. Even withdrawing from friends and loved ones when you feel like you're not living your best life can be an indication you've fallen victim to the toxic positivity trap.

How to accept the negative

Acknowledge and validate negative feelings

Rather than the cliched response we all recognise, try a more open approach, suggests Kritzas. Responses to difficult situations might sound more like: ‘I am feeling angry because I received a speeding ticket’; ‘I can see how that may have made you feel sad, can you tell me more?’; or ‘That sounds really hard, how are you feeling about this?’.

Adopt a growth mindset

Experience the hardships in your life as they happen, but keep in mind that they won’t last forever, and are not character-defining. “Instead of viewing setbacks and failures as the opposite of success, start viewing them as part of success,” says Kritzas. “When we view failures as lessons that we can learn from, we start experiencing personal growth at a rapid rate.”

Develop a gratitude ritual

“Every evening at bedtime, upon reflecting on your day, try to train your mind to think about the tiny moments where you experienced joy or felt a sense of gratitude for something small that happened,” says Kritzas. Use this time to practise gratitude rather than projecting sweeping statements of gratitude on to others. Remember, “when gratitude is used to replace pain, it moves into the toxic positivity zone”.