“Everything will be fine.” “This too shall pass.” “Stay positive! It could be worse.”
A recent article suggests that if we’ve ever gone through a difficult time we’ve probably heard some of these phrases ad nauseam from friends and family. People who say them no doubt have good intentions; they’re simply trying to put a rosy filter on the tough time we’re having. “It gets better, stay optimistic. But that excess of positivity can actually be negative.
This kind of encouragement and self-talk is so common that mental health experts have a name for it: toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity is the idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and the positive aspects of life,” said Heather Monroe, a clinical social worker and director of program development at Newport Institute. “It’s the belief that if we ignore difficult emotions and the parts of our life that aren’t working as well, we’ll be much happier.”
The problem is, toxic positivity oversimplifies the human brain and how we process emotions, and it can actually be detrimental to our mental health, Monroe said.
“There can be long-term effects of toxic positivity including encouraging a person to remain silent about their struggles,” Monroe said. “Feeling connected to and heard by others is one of the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety, while isolation fuels these emotional issues. Often, trying to hide or deny feelings can lead to more stress on the body and increased difficulty in avoiding upsetting emotions.”
We’re advised that unblinking optimism and shutting the door on negative feelings doesn’t make them go away; if anything, it exacerbates them.
Given the collective trauma we’re all experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic, toxic positivity is an especially relevant concept right now.
All those Instagram posts saying we need to lean into this experience, embrace spending more time with our family, get fit, pick up a new hobby, learn a new language, and finally write that novel? That’s toxic positivity, said Noel McDermott, a psychotherapist in London.
“One of the biggest examples of toxic positivity is in the area of denial of the traumatic nature of the pandemic,” McDermott said. “You see it when people only promote the positive experience of lockdown in which they have been on a journey of self-development, learning to live in peace with their inner world.”
He added: “Even in normal times, becoming more inwardly focused is always a challenge, as we all have inner demons.”
Toxic positivity subtly ― or not so subtly, suggests that if we’re not staying positive about this pandemic, we’re in the wrong headspace.
The article says that it delegitimizes the very legitimate worries people have about their health, their family and friends’ health, and putting food on the table while unemployed or worrying about job security.
With the pandemic, the act of survival is mentally exhausting; few want to work on other more mundane activities when they’re worried about their families and saying goodbye to COVID-stricken loved ones via Zoom funerals.
The article also points out that we can be a victim of our own toxic positivity, too. We’re advised to think about our current outlook: Are we forcing toxic positivity on ourselves during this?
So, now that we know that positivity pushing isn’t the way to address troubling times, what’s a better route to take? Here’s what the experts said:
1. Give ourselves permission to have both negative and positive emotions.
We need to remind ourselves that we’re capable of holding multiple perspectives about uncertain or troubling situations, even when we’re in the thick of it. We’re told to lean into the positive and the negative and also to be realistic.
“Practice gratitude for what you do have, but also be honest and express what is bothering you, like missed celebrations or worries about the future in the case of this pandemic,” Monroe said.
2. Take a deeper look at our anxiety through journaling or mental exercises.
Luckily, there are strategies for examining our own anxieties and managing them, Jenny Maenpaa, a therapist, said. Deep breathing techniques coupled with guided meditations that recognize the fear and acknowledge it in order to keep moving forward are often helpful.
“Another strategy is to journal before bed or any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, because our brains can hold many short-term thoughts in it at once just in case we need them at a moment’s notice,” she said.
“This means that when we’re thinking about our fears or anxieties, our brain codes them as important and keeps them at the forefront,” Maenpaa explained. “By writing down those fears and anxieties, even if we can’t do anything about them, we’ve told our brains that it’s OK to let them go because they’re being taken care of.”
When Maenpaa is struggling to accept and balance seemingly conflicting emotions during rough patches in her life, she uses the old improv exercise of “yes and ...?”
“For example, I’ll say, ’I am so grateful to have a roof over my head and I hate the job that’s continuing to pay me in order to afford that roof.” Or “I’m afraid of what the future holds and I feel some excitement at the hope some things may change for the better.’”
“When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our positive and negative emotions,” Maenpaa explained.
3. Once we’ve explored what’s causing us anxiety, make an extra effort to take care of ourselves.
There’s no actionable advice built into toxic positivity. It’s just “hang in there, things will get better eventually!”
The article notes one action we can take when dealing with uncertainty: Make a project of simply taking care of ourselves. Since we’re going through a lot right now, and it wouldn’t hurt to baby ourselves a little.
“Taking action for yourself means you sort out your sleep hygiene, exercise regularly, eat well and keep a healthy mealtime routine, hydrate and talk more about your worries to loved ones and friends,” McDermott said.
“You also might develop a habit of mind that allows you to find meaning in struggle, whether that be through religion, spiritual practice or by attaching to larger causes.”
If we follow that advice, we’re giving ourselves agency, whereas toxic positivity just gives us nice-sounding, but empty platitudes.
Toxic positivity “would have us deny the psychological warning signs of distress that are trying to tell us to take care,” McDermott said. “In times like these, we have to take extra care of ourselves.”
So have we given ourselves time to sit with our grief and uneasiness over how life has changed? Or do we push those thoughts away as quickly as possible so we can focus on staying positive and grateful for what we do have?
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with counting your blessings during such a dark time. But you can do so while also acknowledging your uneasiness, according to Maenpaa.
“You can fight toxic positivity by acknowledging or recognizing that multiple complex emotions can exist in you all at once,” Maenpaa said. “You can be devastated at the loss of life from COVID-19 and also enjoy the novelty of quarantine.”
The takeaway? It's OK to look on the bright side - but stay real and realistic.