When Positivity Becomes Toxic...
Not too long ago, I crashed my car. It was written off and my insurance company didn't give me enough money to buy a new one. Being an hour's commute from work, my friends and my family meant that was a difficult situation for me. I'm obviously glad I was okay in the crash, and I know things could have been worse. But it was still a stressful situation - work, finances, etc.
SO MANY people responded with 'At least you got some money' and 'It could have been worse'. They're right. It could have been worse and I'm lucky it wasn't. But I felt stressed and sad and their comments dismissed this. I still have a house, a job, and a good life, which made me feel guilty about feeling negative about the whole situation in the first place.
And it got me thinking - what is the obsession with positive thinking and believing that you have to be positive about every situation you find yourself in? Why aren't I just allowed to feel crap?
And I'm sure we can all think of a time where our friends have tried to make a positive situation out of a negative one, responding with things like 'at least you still have...' or 'just try and be positive', and the worst one on social media - 'good vibes only!'. It's likely these people are likely responding in the only way they know how, but it's really unhelpful.
What's wrong with feeling down, and why aren't we allowed to say we are?
'Negative' emotions are not 'bad' emotions. We're allowed to be down, annoyed, struggling with mental health, negatively affected by a crappy situation. But it's still common for people to respond with 'It'll be okay', or 'don't worry'.
And this is Toxic Positivity - avoiding or dismissing negative thoughts, and encouraging positivity, even in situations that are expected to bring sadness. It can even be self-inflicted, feeling that we have to present as happy and positive when we're really not feeling it! But suppressing and ignoring our feelings can put more stress on the body, and actually make it harder for us to avoid distressing thoughts. It can leave us with more anxiety and physical illness, until we deal with them.
While there's power in positive thinking, some situations are just bad! I’ve always been told off by friends and family when I acknowledge someone else’s shit situation. I’ll say ‘Ohhh that is really shit. I’m sorry’. And they’ll say “You can’t agree that her situation is shit! How will that make her feel better?!” But I’m not here to make her feel better. I’m not trying to make her feel better. In real dire situations, what could I possibly say to make it better? Instead, I’m acknowledging the feelings, and letting my friend know it’s okay, and perfectly expectable, that she would feel that way.
The 'good vibes only' comments can make us feel like we're not allowed to have negative feelings and, if we do, we don't need to be bringing the 'bad vibes' to everyone else. It can stop us from sharing how we feel, even though it's really good practice to talk through emotions and negative experiences in order to process them. Recognising and naming our emotions can help us understand them, process them, and allow us to develop coping mechanisms for when we feel that way. It's not realistic to be happy all of the time, and pretending you are when you're really struggling can be detrimental to your mental health.
There seems to have been a real flurry of these posts on social media. Perhaps because it's January - a positive start to a new year. And while this is great for some, not everyone is feeling positive, and not everyone has to. Life isn't always positive and we need to be allowed to feel unpleasant emotions to learn how to cope with them.
We already find it hard to talk about feelings and mental health in society, and we're slowly getting there with raising awareness of mental health. But we need to be able to respond appropriately when a friend tries to talk to us about their feelings, rather than brushing it under the carpet or telling them to be positive, like they're not allowed to feel those things.
Don't avoid your emotions. Let yourself feel them.
Learn coping mechanisms to manage your emotions.
Listen to others, acknowledge their feelings, and show support, even if it's different to how you feel.
Pay attention to how you feel, and honour it.
Be honest with yourself.
Emotions are signalling to your body - listen to them.
Some examples of how you can respond to someone sharing their feelings:
"That must be really hard. Is there anything I can do?"
"I'm here for you"
"How can I support you?"
"I'm sorry that happened to you"