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LETSS talk about toxic positivity

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 What is toxic positivity?

Have you ever experienced a difficult or distressing situation and shared how you feel with someone, only to be told to 'look on the bright side of things'? I know I have – and I know I'm not the only one. And while generally these things are said with the best of intentions – the hard truth is that in many circumstances these responses can be deeply unhelpful.

This idea of utilizing and encouraging excessive and ineffective 'positive thinking' or optimistic/happy emotions across all situations, is what's often referred to as 'toxic positivity'. Now I know that as much as I have been on the receiving end of this 'toxic positivity', I have also undoubtedly been on the giving end of it as well (again, I imagine many of us have). This is not intended as a criticism, but rather an invitation for us all to think about how we can more meaningfully be in feelings of distress (both with ourselves and others). But first, let's unpack this term a little bit more.

So… why is 'toxic positivity' harmful?

The harmful effects of toxic positivity are far-reaching - they are often deeply ingrained in our own ways of thinking and responding to difficult situation. Looking at our cultural context, phrases like 'you just have to think positive' and 'don't worry, it'll be fine' (just to name a few) are thrown around very frequently. For many of us, these attitudes can become internalized – to the point where experiences of negative emotions are met with guilt and a desperate attempt to quickly get over it. It leaves us with little space to properly sit with, process and then move through these painful and negative experiences.

Now, I want to be clear in saying that fostering a positive mindset can undoubtedly be a powerful coping mechanism for many – however 'toxic positivity' is different in the sense that it suggests that thinking optimistically is the best or only way to get through difficult experiences. More than this, it tends to invalidate the experiences of negative emotions (even though these are a valuable and inevitable part of life).

What can we do instead?

Okay, so it's all well and good to understand the harmful aspects of toxic positivity – but what do we do instead? In some sense, this part is both simple and difficult. When someone comes to us with their experience of distress and shares big and painful stories with us – it can be a really uncomfortable space to be in. Truly sitting and empathizing with another person, also means feeling some of their distress yourself. However, often times this is the most helpful thing that can be done. Rather than attempting to shuffle that person along to a 'positive' space (that perhaps seems more comfortable in the moment), stay with them in their story. Validate that what they're going through is really difficult, give them the space to fully share what they're experiencing and do your best to genuinely be present throughout the conversation.

I want to be mindful in saying that – accepting and being with these distressing emotions doesn't mean that you can't let positive ones arise. If the person you're with naturally moves through to a space where they are looking at the positive side of things or recognizing their own strengths through what is happening– you can be in that space with them too. Just like this isn't about forcing positivity on someone, it's also not about forcing someone to be in that negative space if they're feeling ready to move through it.

Just to wrap things up….

Toxic positivity is often subtle and constantly present, we've all undoubtedly been exposed to it at one point or another, and it's okay if you're not feeling too sure about how to navigate it. If it's something that's been present throughout your life, it will undoubtedly take some time to find different ways of being with your own and others distressing emotions. Make an effort to be mindful of toxic statements, engage in conversation about these topics with others and do your best to allow yourself and others to feel the full range of your emotions, both positive and negative.

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