Toxic positivity: When hearing ‘stay positive’ makes you feel worse. Learn why it is harmful and impairs healing
In times of adversity, searching for something positive to focus on can be a coping mechanism. However, there is a fine line between healthy optimism and toxic positivity that could hurt mental health and impede acceptance and healing, experts said.
- Toxic positivity occurs when negative emotions are dismissed or suppressed in favour of a positive mindset during painful situations
- However, focusing only on “being positive” can be harmful for mental health, and intensify fears and worries
- Being able to express one’s emotional pain is necessary for healing to begin
- Middle-aged men, for example, tend to have more trouble processing painful emotions and suppress feelings of distress
- Experts gave tips on how to deal with toxic positivity and manage difficult emotions
When my teenage daughter was badly injured in 2021, which drastically affected her mobility, people rallied around us in person and on social media with statements such as “stay positive” or “everything will be fine”.
On days when I was overwhelmed by the thought of all that my child had lost at the time — freedom to move around, sleep pain-free and enjoy her teenage years — some people reminded me that “it could have been worse”.
Obviously, everyone was trying to make us feel better, but those well-meaning words sometimes made me feel worse and hide my distress even more.
While I was immensely thankful for their support, it did not mean that my sadness, anxiety, stress, frustration and rage — which made people uncomfortable — were not valid.
In times of adversity, searching for something positive to focus on or taking the #goodvibesonly approach can be a coping mechanism.
However, there is a fine line between healthy optimism and toxic positivity that could hurt mental health and impede acceptance and healing, experts said.
Clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai from Think Psychological Services, a private psychological and counselling practice, said that everyone has their own different happiness “set-point”, described as a person’s general level of happiness.
This set-point can be temporarily affected by the ups and downs in life, but it will eventually return to equilibrium.
“Being a happy person is not toxic positivity. Denial of everything other than positivity, however, is toxic,” she said.
AN UNHEALTHY FORM OF POSITIVITY
Ms Caroline Ho, a professional counsellor with online counselling and coaching platform Talk Your Heart Out, said that toxic positivity is the belief that people should maintain a positive mindset in the midst of challenges and tough situations while ignoring all negative emotions.
“Focusing solely on the positive is not healthy because it silences the human experience… sooner or later, we will still face these emotions or stress in another setting or situation.Ms Caroline Ho, a professional counsellor”
Ms Chai said: “While positive thinking offers some benefits, it’s important to note that no one can think positively all the time.
“Getting someone to express only positive emotions suppresses their ability to communicate and makes them feel bad and ashamed for having negative thoughts.”
This unhealthy form of positivity can take on many forms.
One example is a social media post that preaches optimism with feel-good captions, minimising a person’s emotional pain.
Or when you tell someone who has just lost their job to “stay positive”.
Or when someone has lost a loved one and you tell the person, “At least she lived a long life”.
Ms Ho pointed out that humans are designed to experience a range of emotions, including good and difficult ones.
“Focusing solely on the positive is not healthy because it silences the human experience.
“By avoiding negative emotions, we are denying their existence. But sooner or later, we will still face these emotions or stress in another setting or situation,” she said.
WHY PEOPLE AVOID TALKING ABOUT EMOTIONAL PAIN
Why do some people harp on positivity but avoid uncomfortable dealing with emotions such as sadness and grief?
Ms Ho said: “Society has ingrained in us that people with a positive mindset are seen as someone who is strong at managing their emotions, and can conquer life's challenges.
“We look up to them because they seem to be able to get their life together while we struggle. We then view positivity as a ticket to greater acceptance and happiness.”
Some people may sincerely want to spread positivity to lift spirits but have the misguided belief that difficult emotions ought to be avoided.
In turn, the fear of being judged for being a “downer” or “wet blanket” could lead people to put on a brave or cheery front.
In her practice, Ms Chai observed that middle-aged men tend to have more trouble processing painful emotions and many turn to alcoholism and externalising behaviours such as self-harm or aggression to cope.
“Social concepts of masculinity, such as a desire to appear strong and detached from emotions, can fuel alienation and a reluctance to seek help.
“They feel continual pressure to solve issues on their own and suppress feelings of distress,” she said.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE SUPPRESS EMOTIONAL PAIN
Side-stepping emotional pain does not make a person feel happier or heal faster. Research has shown that it has an opposite effect.
For instance, a 2018 study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Plos One, found that suppressing fears and worries during a health scare may intensify those feelings.
During the 2016 epidemic of Zika, a disease spread by mosquitoes and could cause birth defects, the researchers found that pregnant women who suppressed their fears about the outbreak had higher levels of fear later, prompting a vicious circle of emotional suppression and fear.
In another study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2016, parents who suppressed negative emotions and amplified positive feelings in front of their children felt less emotionally well.
“Being able to share negative emotions can be part of the healing process. It is essential to be able to grieve before there is acceptance and recovery.Clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai”
Ms Chai has encountered people who are in complete denial of what is happening in their lives, preventing them from accepting reality and affecting their decision-making process.
For example, the terminally ill who do not accept that death is coming or those who mask their trauma or disability with extreme positivity.
“Trying to eliminate all negative emotions can lead to poor judgement.
“When we can accept reality, we make room for acceptance and hope,” she added.
HOW TO PROCESS DIFFICULT EMOTIONS HEALTHILY
1. Allow yourself to feel, even if they are difficult and painful emotions
There is no healing without feeling. Pushing away negative feelings will only hurt you. Allow yourself to process and recognise why you have these emotions and what it will take to heal.
2. Talk about how you feel
Being able to talk to people you trust about your emotions, especially negative ones, is important. Sometimes, therapy may be needed to help guide you along.
A brain imaging study by psychologists from University of California in Los Angeles, United States revealed that verbalising feelings when one is sad, angry or in emotional pain makes these feelings less intense.
3. Understand that even negative emotions can be helpful
When you feel uncomfortable about something or have unpleasant or negative feelings, those emotions can alert you or help you to take action, for example, by drawing some boundaries or taking steps towards self-care or improving your well-being.
This may help you to make better decisions in the future to safeguard your psychological health.
4. Find a balance by self-regulating strong emotions
To avoid making impulsive or emotional decisions, it is important to self-regulate your feelings and come to balanced state of mind.
When strong emotions overwhelm you, take a moment to try these grounding techniques, or exercises that help you reconnect with the present moment:
- Do some deep breathing
- Do some progressive muscle relaxation (this involves alternating tensing and relaxing the muscles to reduce tension)
- Engage in guided imagery (imagine your favourite, safe and calm place) while taking deep breaths to recalibrate
Source: Clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai from Think Psychological Services
HOW TO DEAL WITH TOXIC POSITIVITY
For those supporting a struggling friend or family member, empathy goes a long way.
Ms Chai advice is to let the person talk about their feelings openly and avoid constructing a positive response to everything they share.
“Being able to share negative emotions can be part of the healing process. It is essential to be able to grieve before there is acceptance and recovery,” she said.
For people who find themselves in a situation where their emotions are invalidated or dismissed, Ms Ho suggested pausing the conversation to express their need to share their difficulties without receiving unsolicited advice.
On my part, increasingly suffocated by my own pretence of being an emotionally strong mum who could handle every single setback while coping with my child’s injury, I stopped pretending that everything was okay.
I opened up to a few trusted friends, tearing as I talked about the trauma that my daughter went through, the utter loneliness that I had felt while trying to keep it all together, as well as the grief over the loss of our usual family life.
They listened, and one cried along with me over lunch but never once told me that I had to “be strong”.
I believe that those brief moments of expressing my emotions openly allowed me to process my feelings and situation, pushing me to forge ahead with renewed hope.