Ever had to go through a difficult situation, only for friends to tell you something like, “Everything is going to be OK”? Positive as the statement may be, it also entails a certain degree of toxicity. It’s called toxic positivity.
Sure, nobody wants to be a Negative Nancy, but that doesn’t mean we should maintain a positive mindset no matter the situation. Other scenarios of forced empathy: “Don’t worry about your pay cut, at least you still have a job” and “Don’t be sad about your break-up, you should be grateful that you still have a family to come home to”. Toxic positivity can be damaging, say experts.
The good-vibes-only approach
According to Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, this coping mechanism is unhealthy. Suppressing emotions for the sake of projecting a positive outlook externally can have unfavourable repercussions.
“The ideal of only looking on the bright side implies that one should not address or share his or her struggles. This can instead lead to the person having feelings of shame, guilt or disappointment – which can in turn affect interpersonal relationships and how the person functions day to day.”
Erlina Sidik, a life coach at Erlina Sidik Coaching, adds that because emotions are a normal part of our human experience, we can feel like our experience is being belittled when told to “get over it and think positive”.
“It is not harmful to have a positive mindset. However, toxic positivity is harmful because we’re made to bypass the emotions that we are experiencing, without recognising, processing, and releasing them before moving on.”
How to manage your feelings
To be fair, most people don’t take on this toxic behaviour deliberately – it’s not out of ill intentions. If anything, they sometimes do it because they don’t know how to react to what is being told to them.
“In some situations, the advice to stay positive is offered not for the benefit of the one who is troubled, but so that the one dispensing the advice can remove himself from the uncomfortable nature of the situation,” says Sidik.
Whatever the reason, toxic positivity is unhealthy, and it would be helpful to learn how to manage your feelings the next time someone directs it at you. Dr Chow says that, for a start, you should acknowledge that negative emotions come and go.
“The emotions you experience are unique to you – there is no right or wrong way to feel about a certain event or thing. It is important that you recognise that everyone deals with stress and negative emotions in different ways.”
Then, give yourself a realistic timeline to process how you think and feel when unfavourable things occur, and write down your feelings in a journal. Penning down your thoughts and emotions allows you to be fully aware of what you’re experiencing.
Also, speak to someone you trust or a clinical psychologist to make sense of the difficulties you are experiencing.
“You may realise that there’s generally a deeper underlying pattern of thought process or behaviour that needs to be addressed,” adds Dr Chow.
Alternative statements to make
Want to comfort a friend but avoid toxically positive statements? Erlina suggests these three things to say besides “It’s going to be OK”:
1. “I’m listening”
This helps them feel that they are being heard, and encourages them to release their emotions.
2. “I’m here for you. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?”
This allows them to decide how they wish to be helped, so they don’t have to be subjected to unsolicited advice.
3. “I can see that this is really hard for you”
This lets them know that you are empathetic to their situation.