We are encouraged now more than ever to talk about our feelings. To reach out to those closest to us when we are faced with struggles. We may need supporting through a serious life crisis or it could just be a vent about day to day issues. Either way the message is everywhere; from social media to TV campaigns and mental health charities – don’t suffer in silence, keep talking.
Expressing our feelings is a way of releasing the burden. Even if our confidant can’t actually solve the problem, simply feeling heard and validated can be incredibly uplifting. A problem shared and all that!
Yet what happens when talking actually makes us feel worse?
How many of us have reached out for support only to be met with the following responses?
“You just need to think positive”
“You should be grateful for what you do have.”
“Never mind, it could be worse.”
Did these pearls of wisdom ever make anyone feel better. I would say – absolutely NOT. In fact, the recipient is more likely to feel guilty or ashamed for having what are actually completely normal and appropriate human emotions.
Is the belief that no matter how awful or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.
Of course there is no denying that having a generally optimistic outlook is good for our wellbeing. Re-framing difficult situations can often supply a more compassionate and balanced perspective.
However, when positivity becomes overzealous and rigid it is not only unhelpful, it’s toxic. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimises and denies any trace of human emotion.
In a nutshell – we shouldn’t have to pretend everything is OK when it isn’t.
What if it’s not only acceptable for us to feel all the emotions that accompany the bad stuff – but it’s beneficial? By providing opportunities to process, feel and accept we are able to move forward in a healthy way.
Difficult as it may be, undesirable emotions are best met with open arms. Dismissing pain and forcing positivity is a false economy. The negative energy will eventually find a way out – it has to. And it is unlikely to be released in a healthy way.
Facing all emotions, good, bad and ugly is all part of the authentic human experience. My feeling is that even the unpleasant aspects of life are integral to living fully. As such they should be embraced and shared.
The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience. It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalised in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.As cited in Scully (2020)
Symptoms of toxic positivity
Hiding/masking your true feelings.
Trying to just ‘power through’ a situation by dismissing emotions.
Experiencing guilt or shame for feeling what you feel.
Minimising other people’s sad experiences with ‘feel good’ quotes/statements.
Trying to offer a different perspective instead of validating their emotional experience.
Shaming or berating others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.
Can lead to depression, self-doubt and denial.Cherry (2021)
So what is the alternative to smothering someone with a blanket of positivity?
Acknowledging that we all have a myriad of complex emotions is a good starting point. For example, you can be grateful to the NHS for treatment you receive but still feel resentful of the fact you need treatment in the first place.
Empowering people to recognise and accept their thoughts and feelings is ironically more positive than following the urge to ‘buck them up’ using toxic positivity.
How to cultivate genuine optimism.