Can being too positive have a negative effect?
Like a lot of people all around the world, I’ve really struggled during the pandemic. This is scary for me personally because I’m one of those millions of folks who have to be careful not to spiral down into a pit of despair. I used to drink nine vodka gimlets a night, prank call my own mother, pee in parking lots and date men who would, for some reason, only want to see me in the middle of the night. I do not need to go back there! Now, I’m sober, married to a great guy, live in a safe place and have two dogs who sometimes fart at the exact same time then look at each other like ‘Jinx!’ I have a lot to be grateful for! Right? I should look on the bright side! I should, ‘Live. Laugh. Love.’
But life’s not that simple, is it?
Don’t worry, be happy?
As if it’s not bad enough that the pandemic rattled our financial, mental and physical wellbeing, we’ve also been bombarded by messages telling us to stay positive, grateful and productive. Which, in turn, makes us feel bad about feeling bad.
This specific form of psychological torture is called Toxic Positivity. I know it sounds sort of sexy like the name of an indie rock band or a new, dark red lipstick in Lady GaGa’s make-up line, but, unfortunately, it’s not that cool. It’s a bummer.
The Psychology Group’s Samara Quintero and Jamie Long define it like this, ‘Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective over-generalisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.’
No, thank you!
The minimisation and invalidation of human emotions reminds me of growing up in the 70s and 80s. If you were raised by Baby Boomers, you’re probably permanently scarred by phrases like ‘Get over it!’ and ‘You should be grateful, there are starving kids in Africa’ and, in my case, ‘This your new dad, Tom. He only drinks at night.’
But, now, in our ‘Woke AF’ world, Toxic Positivity is everywhere. You can’t escape this relentless warped positivity which lives on the surface pretending what lies beneath doesn’t exist. Social media is flooded with this crap, posted by people who may have good intentions, but actually might be doing more harm than good. Let’s take a scroll through Instagram and find some good ol’ inspirational quotes.
Instagram: ‘You have to look through the rain to see the rainbow.’
Me: Gee thanks. Before reading this, I had no idea how to see a rainbow.
Instagram: ‘Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.’
Me: How about I karate chop you like I’m a ninja protecting myself from dumb shit?
Instagram: ‘The meaning of life is to give life meaning.’
Me: Maybe I’ll try that after I find the energy to put on a clean pair of underwear.
Not only is social media covered in surface level positive vibe BS, our friends and family are spewing it in real life conversations. Classics include; ‘You should smile more’, ‘Don’t be so negative’, ‘Everything happens for a reason’, ‘Think happy thoughts’ and, as my friend said the other day, ‘It could be worse’. No shit, Rhonda! I could be trapped in a fire, and now I’m thinking about being trapped in a fire!
It’s just as important that we don’t lie to ourselves. We should all remember this – sometimes, it’s OK to not be OK. Come on, people, explore the darkness! As psychologist Dr Konstantin Lukin wrote, ‘Accepting difficult emotions helps with coping and with decreasing the intensity of those emotions. Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend.’
Yassssssss. You can’t let things build up, simply pretending to the world that everything is tickety-boo. In the same way that you can’t put a plaster on a massive wound! Blood will spill out from the sides and ruin your cool t-shirts!
As a recovering addict who, for years, tried to outthink, ignore, suppress, control and flat out indulge in my alcoholism, I can tell you that misplaced positivity almost killed me. My ‘everything’s fine’ mentality tricked me into thinking I could keep poisoning myself because it was better than sitting with negative emotions. What I learned the hard way was that I couldn’t deal with my core issue until I had the courage to really look at myself.
Shine a bright light on the darkness! Expose the horror! Know what you’re dealing with! You can’t win a battle with a demon by running away from it. You gotta look that mofo in the eye and learn everything you can about it, at least then you have a chance of a fair fight.
Sure, sometimes we need a little tough love kick in the ass or a little inspirational pick-me up to put a skip in our steps. But, sometimes, the very thing we need to do is go to the scariest place possible because that’s where the truth is, man! For me that was the springboard for change.
Here’s a useful cheesy quote, ‘Pain is the cornerstone of growth.’ Feel the burn. Sit with it. And talk about it. Get it out. It’s my responsibility to do the work and find the good, the wise and the willing for guidance and support.
As a take away I’ll offer some twisted tips that I’ve found helpful.
When you’re struggling…
- Lower your expectations of others. A lot of people are silly and scared and might say the wrong things but they mean well, so take it in the spirit they meant it. Some people on the other hand are just dicks.
- If possible, only share your dark truths with emotionally intelligent people who are either professional counsellor-types or have done a load of work on themselves and get it.
- Get clarity and take responsibility. Are you being a selfish donkey who is pointing fingers and not aware of your own part in the problem? Or is it something bigger that will eventually have to be dealt with by digging for the truth and asking for help (from the right people)?
- Fully accept the situation as it is, go the bottom of the feeling, and trust things will shift and change. This will all feel like a dream soon. Pretend you’re already in looking at it in retrospect!
- Is this a pattern? If so, explore it. What needs to be healed so it doesn’t happen again?
- Do not feel ashamed or guilty for having negative emotions. It’s your God given right to feel like shit sometimes. Remember emotions are there for a reason.
- Keep in mind, pain itself can be a positive thing. Let’s get excited about negativity! Pain drives us to change, to grow, to do something different that we might be thankful for in the future. Sounds like one of those Instagram quotes, sorry. This is tricky business.
When someone else is struggling…
- Listen with your whole heart and imagine what it must feel like to be them.
- Don’t be the person who lives on the surface and says stuff like, ‘You should be grateful!’, ‘Just be happy!’
- Don’t try to fix their problem, just listen without judgment.
- Ask questions before giving advice.
- Say stuff like ‘That sounds like it sucks. I’m so sorry’ instead of saying, ‘It could be worse. Cheer up, petal!’
- Give them some chocolate and tell them they can call you anytime if they need to talk.