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  • Shonagh McHugh

Toxic Positivity: Why it's important to stay authentic and embrace the uncomfortable

Have you ever suffered a setback in your professional or personal life, maybe a tough break-up, a demotion or a missed promotion? We’ve all been there, and it can be tough to navigate through the emotional turmoil that often follows. In situations such as these you may reach out to family and friends for love and support as you navigate this turbulent time. The problem is sometimes you may be met with statements from loved ones such as ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘stay positive’ or 'look on the bright side’ or even ‘don’t worry – it could be worse!’. These statements are all very common, we have all mistakenly used them at some point while trying to comfort someone, the intention behind them is often good-natured – you may be trying to help someone through a tough time by encouraging them to not get disheartened or let negative thoughts consume them. The problem is these statements can be a form of toxic positivity. 

Toxic positivity is a mindset that involves the relentless pursuit of positivity, even in the face of challenging or distressing situations. Toxic positivity looks to suppress or invalidate negative emotions, insisting on an overly optimistic outlook, and expecting everyone to maintain a facade of perpetual happiness. This constant pressure to maintain a facade of happiness can lead to emotional repression, increased stress, and a sense of isolation as people may feel unable to share their true thoughts and emotions with others. Toxic positivity promotes unrealistic expectations, implying that any form of negativity is unacceptable. This can create a culture of denial through the minimisation of authentically human experience and at its worst can prevent individuals or groups from addressing real issues affecting their lives through the refusal to embrace uncomfortable thoughts or emotions.  

To be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with positivity! A positive mindset can be motivating, uplifting and hopeful. It can lead to a greater sense of self belief and improve overall well being. Optimism and positivity have been shown to be associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, improved coping strategies and greater resilience.  

In general, positivity and an optimistic outlook are good for your mental health but that does not require denying or neglecting negative emotions – they are not mutually exclusive! The old saying “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” springs to mind – you can do both! If your dog passes away you can absolutely cry because it’s over, but you can also remember them with fondness and smile because of the time you did have together.  

Navigating the delicate balance of offering emotional support without falling into the trap of toxic positivity can be challenging but it is more than worthwhile. Approaches may vary, but here are a few techniques that could serve as a starting point: 

Lead with Empathy: Instead of immediately offering positive affirmations, start by acknowledging and understanding the emotions the person is experiencing. Show empathy by expressing that you understand their feelings and that it's okay to feel the way they do. 

Validate Negative Emotions: Avoid dismissing or invalidating negative emotions. Let the person know that it's normal to feel a range of emotions, and there is no need to rush into positivity. Validating their feelings creates a space for open communication and trust. 

Avoid Overly Motivating Responses: While motivation is essential, timing is crucial! In the initial moments of someone sharing their struggles, focus on listening and understanding rather than immediately trying to motivate them. Motivation can come organically once the person feels heard and validated. 

Be Attentive and Responsive: Actively listen to what the person is saying and respond genuinely. Offer support without imposing solutions or minimising their experience. Sometimes all someone needs is a listening ear and acknowledgment of their emotions. 

In a world where positivity is often praised, it's crucial to recognise the fine line between fostering a positive environment and perpetuating toxic positivity. Embracing a positive mindset is undoubtedly beneficial, but not at the expense of denying authentic human experiences. Remember that acknowledging and validating both positive and negative emotions creates a space for genuine connections, personal growth and enduring emotional resilience. 

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