What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity may be viewed as a societal assumption where an individual should only aim to display a positive attitude about their life and the world around them - regardless of their emotional pain or the severity of their set of circumstances.

It is akin to the ‘good vibes only’ attitude of pop psychologists who exclaim that “misery is optional”, that you should be grateful for what you have and not be focused on what is missing. 

The collective trauma of the current global pandemic may have brought about uncertainty, anxiety, fear, dread and grief inducing states of mind. But, for those espousing toxic positivity, such negative emotions are wrong.

The danger with such attitudes is that there is a great pressure and an expectation to always be positive during a crisis.

This can have the effect of invalidating an individual’s feelings, thoughts and emotions. When there is no space for expressing real feelings, there is a strong possibility that shame, guilt and embarrassment are potentially activated. If the prevailing ethos is to be positive then there is an implicit assumption that it is not OK to show emotion, even at funerals or other sad occasions. 

It is perfectly reasonable to have a positive attitude on life even during difficult periods of time such as the circumstances surrounding the current pandemic. But, it is important to be aware that some people will be reliving past trauma as a result of the events of the past year and they don’t need to be told to stay positive.

What makes positivity become toxic?

Toxicity is when real feelings are masked and a false self is activated to fit in with the prevailing ethos. An example of this may be when your true feelings would be to express emotion, such as crying at a funeral, but the prevailing ethos in the congregation is to maintain a stiff upper lip.

The authentic response to a sad occasion is to express your feelings but this may be denied by shame, embarrassment or guilt.

Examples of toxic positivity:

  • You woke up in clean sheets this morning, and you have a roof over your head. Therefore, any expressions of grief, depression or anxiety about the day ahead are invalid and any negative thoughts that you have about your life should be instantly dismissed.
  • You are not seeking to gain entry to another country on a boat on the high seas from a war-torn country. Therefore, you should view your lack of work in that context.
  • You are not suffering from food shortages so, therefore, you should not be complaining about the quality of food you have bought or are being served.
  • You express some sadness about past loss but are told that misery is optional and that you should pull yourself together.

In addition to the 'good vibes only' culture of social media, there can also be an overriding insistence on getting things done in the pandemic. To-do lists and the need to start and complete new projects can fuel shame and guilt that you must be doing something special or you are wasting time.

Illustration of a woman hiding her emotions with a mask

Afraid of slipping into toxic positivity behaviour?

A lot of positive advice may be very well-intentioned and not meant to sound hollow. We receive all sorts of such advice from those around us when we experience adversity or a loss. However, by speaking in platitudes instead of taking the time to listen, colleagues or friends and family can potentially leave us feeling that our grief is abnormal and inappropriate.

Remember that you can’t heal heartache and grief on social media with memes. People suffering loss and going through a bereavement process will not want to feel objectified or that their loss is not validated. Trying to offer positive advice might have an honourable motive but perhaps what they really want is to be heard. 

It's important to choose your words carefully when trying to offer a listening ear to someone. If they need to be heard then it is worth remembering that you might need to bite your tongue at times.

By being listened to, they may well feel that they have had their problems normalised, and might feel validated. You might not need to say anything at all. Active listening can be very supportive. What they don’t want to hear is motivational quotes that risk sounding like platitudes and full of cliches.

How can counselling help?

Counselling can offer you a private and confidential space to explore your internal world about not feeling heard or understood.

Perhaps this triggers a difficult set of feelings or discomforting emotions. It could be that you quickly victimise yourself by resenting others who don’t really listen to you. Or, it could be that you end up compulsively seeking to rescue others by offering advice that is not always welcomed.

Counselling gives you the opportunity to be mirrored and to gain insight into your blind spots so that you can enjoy more effective relations with others.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.… Read more

Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

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