Toxic Positivity

The dark side of positive vibes

While being positive is a good and admirable thing to do, suppressing your emotions and making yourself believe that everything would be alright may not be the ideal way of overcoming a situation. As a matter of fact, taking positive thinking to an overgeneralised extreme can be unhealthy and may profoundly put you and others under a lot of unwanted pressure and eventually might lead to long-lasting mental health issues.

To shed some light on how much positivity is bad for you, we spoke to Co-founder and Licensed and Registered Mental Health Therapist from Telos Mental Wellness, Yong Vee Vian as she shared her thoughts on the dark side of positive vibes.

1Twenty80: What is toxic positivity?
Yong Vee Vian: Toxic positivity refers to when a person puts a positive spin on all experiences, no matter how dire the situation is. On top of that, it also involves responding with unpleasant situations with false reassurance and dismissing negative emotions.

1Twenty80: Could you share with us some examples of toxic positivity?
Vee Vian: Toxic positivity comes in a variety of forms. At some point in life, we might be engaged in a toxic positivity situation. For instance, when something bad happens such as going through a break up or losing a job, people tend to tell you “don’t worry, be happy”, “look at the bright side” or “think positive”, while these phrases might be well-intentioned as people believe that they are comforting, but it also dismisses one’s negative emotions and experiences instead of affirming them. Other common phrases that are often used include:

  • It could be worse. 
  • Don’t think about it.
  • Just focus on the good vibes. 
  • Happiness is a choice.
  • It’s not a big deal, just be happy.
  • You’ll be fine-lah.

 It suppresses authentic human emotions, which stunts one’s emotional growth.

1Twenty80: What are some of the common signs of toxic positivity?
Vee Vian: The term “toxic” in “toxic positivity” indicates a form of positivity gone wrong or rather an adverse form of positivity. However, how does positivity become negative? It’s when positivity is used inappropriately or the use of positivity in a specific scenario would result in a negative outcome. An example of positivity gone astray is when a form of purely cognitive positivity is used to put an unrealistic spin on the situation, even to the point of disregarding one’s genuine emotions or ignoring one’s problems. Taken to the extreme, toxic positivity can interfere with accessing one’s true feelings. Some other common signs could be experiencing guilt for feeling sad, angry or stressed and dismissive of others’ difficult experiences. 

1Twenty80: How does toxic positivity affect our daily lifestyle?

Vee Vian: A better way to put it is “How is one’s way of life affected by toxic positivity?”. A lifestyle that is focused on dissociating oneself from certain hard truths or realities in favour of an unrealistic or unhelpful form of positivity. It suppresses authentic human emotions, which stunts one’s emotional growth. It is often used as an avoidance mechanism to escape from facing difficult emotions and experiences.

1Twenty80: How much toxic positivity is too much? When will a person know  where  to raw a line from being overly positive?
Vee Vian: Toxic positivity does not merely arrive from an excessive quantity of positivity, it also arises from inappropriate or unsuitable usage of positivity to match the individual’s current situation rather than an excess amount of positivity.

That being said, positivity stops being beneficial and adaptive if it no longer realistically correlates with the given situation. For instance, when an individual would actually benefit from examining their underlying true negative feelings regarding a situation, rather than merely covering it up with disingenuous forms of “positivity”. In this form, you could also call toxic positivity a form of self-deceit. On the other hand, a healthy form of positivity could be called “Hopeful Optimism”, which refers to dealing with the present and desiring a favourable outcome.

The key difference between “Toxic Positivity” and “Hopeful Optimism” is whether there is an acceptance of the situation and whether the desired outcome is rooted in reality.

1Twenty80: How can one deal with toxic positivity?
Vee Vian: You can reach out to licensed and registered mental health therapists or even us to help with your situation. It would be beneficial to reflect deeply on one’s core values, missions, as well as purpose in life. Doing so would allow the individual to assess whether or not said positivity still serves an adaptive function in their life.

1Twenty80: Can social media be a reason for toxic positivity?
Vee Vian: Rather than social media being the cause. I see social media as a tool. (It’s easier than ever to share an idea or concept in this modern era social media) Scrolling through the influx of joyful photos and uplifting quotes on social media can be a pleasurable experience.

However, these social platforms are also designed to keep you scrolling, and over time, all the positive and joyful content on the feed can leave you feeling the effects of toxic positivity.

Overconsumption of these positivity-driven content might lead people to overestimate that everyone is experiencing positive experiences, and they themselves are not living up to the “standard” or feeling sad or down is not right. We seem to be increasingly focused on outward appearance and consumerism, which may fuel the toxic positivity trend of looking well put together at all times.

“However, these social platforms are also designed to keep you scrolling, and over time, all the positive and joyful content on the feed can leave you feeling the effects of toxic positivity.”

1Twenty80: How does toxic positivity affect others?
Vee Vian: It may also lead to invalidation of others’ negative experiences. Toxic positivity is often well-intentioned (want to make someone feel better), but it might end up dismissing the other person by invalidating his or her unpleasant experiences and emotions. As a result, suppression of these negative emotions might lead to long-lasting mental health issues.

1Twenty80: How can one prevent toxic positivity?
Vee Vian: Here are some practical ways to prevent toxic positivity:

  • Let yourself feel your feelings as well as acknowledge and affirm your emotions. All feelings and emotions are valid and valuable, they contribute to our human experience.
  • Accept that it’s okay to feel bad when you are in a bad situation. Then, find constructive and healthy ways to express your emotions such as 
    • Practice emotional regulation strategies. 
    • Identify support networks. 
    • Practice self-care.
    • Learn to differentiate between what you can and cannot control by finding out what‘s in your internal and external locus of control.
    • Reach out to professional help such as licensed and registered mental health practitioners.
    • Give others permission to experience their emotions. Focus on listening to others and showing support, instead of trying to fix things.

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