Have you ever been told to 'just think positive'? If so, you've been a victim of toxic positivity. Ria Wolstenholme explains
Having a bad day might not mean you have a bad life, but there’s nothing worse than someone telling you to ‘just think positive’ as a way of getting past it. Because whilst our thoughts indeed have power, not everything we face in life can be fixed by simply thinking positively. If it were that easy, none of us would have down days and just be smiling like the Cheshire cat for the rest of time.
Toxic positivity is something that reared its ugly head during lockdown when people started sharing messages such as ‘just change your mindset’ or ‘bring the positive vibes’. The idea that an extremely challenging and scary time for so many could be fixed by simply thinking positively was both deluded and damaging.
The thing with toxic positivity is that it can take on many forms. You might not even realise someone is doing it, or simply think it’s someone’s way of helping you get out of a slump. It could be something as menial as a family member or friend acting frustrated at you expressing your feelings about something, rather than listening to why you’re upset. Buzz phrases to watch out for are 'just change your outlook' and 'just be grateful for what you have'. As if it’s that simple to effectively address and resolve your negative feelings or mental health issues.
You might be wondering why it’s important to look out for these things, and why they’re potentially detrimental to your mental health. The best way to describe the impact of toxic positivity is to imagine you’re dealing with something very personal and difficult. Perhaps a death in the family, the loss of a job or an episode of bad mental health. These are all serious, potentially life-changing and scary experiences for people, I’m sure we agree on that. Now imagine, instead of listening to how you’re feeling and accepting that this negative experience will come with negative thoughts you need to share and express, the person you turn to for support simply tells you to “think positive” to feel better about it. That feeling scared and worried is a waste of time and won’t help. In reality, you addressing those feelings of distress and upset is important for your mental process. And more than anything, it’s normal.
So how can we block it out or change the narrative around us? The best thing to do is be honest. If someone isn’t acknowledging or allowing you to be honest and express your negative emotions - tell them how it makes you feel. Sadness, anxiety and loneliness are all human emotions we are all entitled to feel, and they shouldn’t be ignored. These negative experiences, thoughts, feelings and expressions are what make us human. We’re not superheroes, we don’t have to have it together 24/7, and we should never be made to feel so.
It’s easy to think that, whilst the world is in a negative space itself, that we need to counteract it with overt positivity and “good vibes”. But sometimes, seeing people on social media being super productive, super positive and not honest about their down days is detrimental to our own mindset. Because it opens the door to comparison, making us look at how others are handling this weird part of life and thinking it’s better than what we’re doing.
Now more than ever our personal space and safety bubbles are so important. If you feel mentally better, safer, calmer offline and away from the people pushing the message that positive mindset trumps authentic feelings, take yourself out of the situation. If they’re people in your day to day life, try and talk to them about how their words are impacting you, and if that doesn’t work just give yourself some space for however long you need to.
Don’t let other people push you into a corner where you begin to believe that repressing your emotions will solve your problems. Not allowing yourself to feel what you feel will just result in this toxic cycle where you’ll end up feeling angrier, resentful and lower than you were to begin with. Don’t 'just get on with it' and fail to give yourself a chance to unravel. Don’t feel guilty for feeling how you feel. And don’t brush off experiences with the notion that 'it is what it is'. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to be strong all the time, give yourself a break and do what’s right for you.