We need to talk about "Toxic Positivity"
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Being a "positive psychologist" does not, I repeat DOES NOT, mean I go round telling you:
- Look on the bright side
- It could have been worse
- Just keep smiling
...I am not the little Lego team singing "Everything is Awesome" (now try and get that song out of your head!!)
Positive psychology absolutely respects your right to feel crappy. It acknowledges that we are all different and we have different needs. If you are on the murkier side of "OK" and require extra support, I will always try to signpost you to trained professionals who can help far more effectively than I. While my focus is on "self care" and thriving, if you are struggling, self care is in fact a luxury rather than any sort of motivator. Emotions can be a warning light that something isn't right, and sometimes we need much more help to deal with the root cause than a silver lining. Therapy (whichever method you prefer - Gestalt, CBT, DBT, Psychoanalysis, somatic...and so on) is nothing to be ashamed of - in fact be proud you are taking those steps to feel better.
I chose to train as a coach not a counsellor. By choice, I am not a clinician, I cannot prescribe, but I also do not work in the area of mental ill health. Like any academic I have an understanding of the causes, symptoms and awareness of the forms of treatment, but in practice, I would refer someone who needs clinical support because my focus is on the other side of "OK". My aim is to move you from "Fine" to flourishing, that is my area of expertise, that is where I have developed my skills. This means I am not the right person for everyone, with the only proviso is that sometimes my tools can be a useful "add on" to traditional therapeutic intervention (not a substitute, and certainly not an alternative!)
So, what of "Toxic positivity"?
Toxic positivity, strangely enough, is something all of us might engage in without realising, often because it comes from a place of love...and perhaps a little discomfort with others being upset.
What might you say to a friend who says "I'm so useless?"
Many people would immediately respond with "No you're not, you're amazing", and then go on to reel off a whole list of examples of why this is the case.
Unfortunately, this is an example of toxic positivity. In your desire to make that person feel better, you have not validated their right to feel bad. They may feel unheard, they may think "I've now made you uncomfortable" and simply agree...we have missed a chance to really help.
A more helpful response to a statement like that is to first "hold it" with "I'm sorry you feel that way"; or "I'm sad you feel like that". You may then wish to add "I've always seen you as so [insert a few examples from said list here]..."; and then ask "Why do you say that?"
The power of "Why?"
The simple act of asking why can make a massive difference because you have acknowledged the speaker's right to feel as they do, and in asking the question, if your help is sought and you are well placed to offer it, you have also learned more about what they need, and thus your support is better targeted.
It's also OK to not be able to "help" directly
Ultimately, people do have to take the stand alone, and perhaps the only thing you can offer is to hold their hand. That's wonderful if you have the time and capacity to do so, but don't make promises you cannot keep.
I am reminded of my husband's battle with Hodgkins Lymphoma 10 years ago - and thankfully it has now been in remission for 8 years! One of our closest friends said "I know there's nothing we can really do - but call on us if you need anything like a driver, or shopping." It was such a refreshing moment of honesty and kindness capturing the two things that are so important whether fighting psychological demons or preparing to rise up - accepting the situation for what it is, and looking at what (if anything) can be done. The medical professionals did their job, my husband did his, and 10 later said friend cycled the 26miles of the virtual 40th London Marathon which my husband was running. To me this is healthy positivity at its finest.
And where does positive psychology come in?
Positive psychology focuses on what makes people resilient, and ultimately - happy. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology (who studied the causes of depression as an academic) believed that psychology was "half baked" if we only stopped at helping those with mental ill health back to "OK". Anyone, who is feeling "OK", can explore their potential to go further and thrive.
Therefore, where one might look at ways of managing toxic relationships, positive psychology will also give you the tools to build healthy ones (Quick tip: Name 3 friends you LOVE, and identify their values - then work to live those values yourself regularly, and you'll find people of the same mindset tend to gravitate to you).
Positive Psychology always proposes practical ways (eg. a better sleep routine, getting fresh air, connecting with loved ones) to take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. The chemical balance and circuitry of our brain can be altered by sustained behaviours – these can be positive or negative. Even if you have been feeling down, and a focus on this has caused your brain to function in a certain way, changing your behaviour – eg. through having more exercise, getting out in the sun, practicing gratitude, mediation and so on…ie. any pursuits known to stimulate “happy hormones” or “happy neurotransmitters” – can result in more positive pathways being built, or the negative ones being dampened. Likewise, the use of medication for mental ill health is there to dampen or stimulate brain chemistry in those cases where such behaviour boosts are just not enough – and whether you are undergoing any formal therapy (somatic or talking), we can still benefit from the natural ways to boost brain health...and if you are not, then this is a great way to start physically programming that thriving mindset (literally!)
However, the commitment to build mental and emotional fortitude regularly which positive psychology promotes (focusing on growing Positive emotion, finding Engagement in life, building healthy Relationships, experiencing Meaning, recognising and celebrating Achievement (including the little wins), and taking care of our physical Health) takes time and effort - it's like building physical fitness(!), we need to use those muscles regularly. Therefore even those feeling "OK" may not want to do it!! But, it always respects your right to decide what works for you.
Toxic positivity is about forcing your opinion onto others...even if it's a smiley one.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt