The dangers of toxic positivity and how to combat it

The illusion of many social media accounts is that there’s either no such thing as negative emotions, or that we should only experience happiness all the time and sadness should be ignored. Life coach Emily Chadbourne says that’s toxic thinking.

Have you ever had one of those days when life just feels really rubbish? Like, gravity got stronger or something and the world feels like it’s weighing you down? Maybe it was a breakup, or a redundancy or a global pandemic (hands up if you’ve had more rubbish days in 2020 than in any other year? *raises both hands*) or maybe it was just a random Tuesday.

For whatever reason, you woke up and life felt hard. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that this makes you a bona fide human being. Congratulations, you go to the top of the class you glorious mess you!

So why is it, when we have these totally human moments, we are often met not with understanding, but with a rhetoric of positivity which is intended to encourage us to ‘snap out of it’? This would suggest would it not, that what we are feeling is bad, negative or wrong. In a world where positive psychology is becoming trendy, are we in danger of taking it too far?

There’s no denying that since COVID we’ve all been desperate for a bit more positivity. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to encourage us to take our mental health more seriously and it would appear that we are doing just that.

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According to a report by Sensor Tower (an app store intelligence firm) downloads of mental wellness apps increased by two million from January to April 2020. But are we just being sold a bunch of affirmations? And are they really helping?

While there is nothing inherently wrong with positivity, it becomes problematic when it delegitimises someone’s experience or feeling. This is when it becomes something known as toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity can be characterised in the following ways.

  1. Ignoring or dismissing your own or other’s emotions because “good vibes only” *peace sign emoji; purple love heart emoji; winky face emoji*.
  2. Feeling shame for having a bad day or guilty for complaining. After all, you’re one of the lucky ones, right?
  3. Invalidating other people’s experiences by not acknowledging pain, anger and frustration.
  4. Pretending everything is okay so you don’t look like the odd one out. Because everyone else is having an Insta-tastic time.
  5. Using gratitude and perspective like an aggressive weapon.

While we continue to be blind to toxic positivity, we will continue to disconnect from our true emotions and from each other.

In his work, author, psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay writes, “I actually attack the concept of happiness. The idea that – I don’t mind people being happy – but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness.”

Sadness, like all hard feelings, is a valid human emotion.

But without a space to be able to express such emotions, we shun them. When we shun them they don’t go away. They fester. And when those emotions fester, the become more painful, heavier and more debilitating.

5 ways to combat toxic positivity in your life

Check your language

One of the most life-changing things I have done is to change my language around how I label my emotions. I used to think that low vibe emotions like shame and anger and apathy were bad for manifestation. I used to think I should be aiming to have positive emotions as much as possible. But the truth is ALL emotions hold equal value to the human experience. Try it for yourself. Challenge yourself to go for a whole day of gently and compassionately correcting yourself when you use negative or positive language about your feelings. Then do it the next day. And the next. And the next.

Monitor your social media

Social media is a breeding ground for toxic positivity. Pretty Pinterest quotes might look benign and harmless, but with the average person looking at Instagram for 53 minutes every single day that’s a lot of fake happiness.

Follow the people who post about tools they use to sit with and transcend hard emotions. Mute or unfollow the ones who talk about how to have positive vibes every single day! If they’re not prepared to post an unfiltered selfie once in a while, they’re probably filtering their emotions too.

Share with others

When we are willing to speak openly about how we feel, we give others permission to do the same. When we hide feelings in the shadows of shame, they get scarier, angrier, and harder to cope with. Choose a safe person (a trusted friend, relative, or coach/counsellor) and speak your truth. It might help to do some journaling first.

Feel the hard stuff

In this highly magnified period of uncertainty, stuff is coming up for everyone. Frustrations that seem new, like a husband who breathes too heavily or that people aren’t complying with government guidelines, are simply being amplified by this unusual situation. It is often beyond the pain and fear that answers and freedom lie. So, when hard emotions come to the surface don’t ignore them, be curious about them.

Choose optimism over positivity

Simply put, positivity is synthetic happiness. It is a pretense that everything is okay. Optimism is acknowledging that right now it sucks but having faith that it will be okay in the end. For more on this, check out this episode of the Healthy-ish podcast featuring yours truly. And remember, you’re human. Unashamedly Human.

Emily Chadbourne is a Melbourne-based life coach, author and speaker who trained at The Coaching Institute, and is the founder of The Unashamedly Human Hub.