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Toxic positivity: Why putting a happy spin on things isn’t always good

By June 5, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

Psychotherapist Sarah Crosby on toxic positivity and how the dark side of ‘positive vibes only’ can impact our wellbeing

I remember the first time I read The Secret.

The initial flurry had already occurred. The think pieces, terracotta-heavy documentary and Oprah endorsement had followed. As tends to happen, by the time I sat down to read Rhonda Byrne and her words, it was well and truly down the hype-line. This is not a bid on my part to appear “alternative” or immune to what’s trending but a reflection on the sluggish reservation that comes with committing to anything that has been incessantly publicised.


It was not an act of protest, but a lack of energy.

So, when I finally bought and read Byrne, I felt ready.

Turns out, I wasn’t.

I wasn’t ready.

The law of attraction. Harmless enough, in theory.

Think about everything you want in life? Easy. I have already whittled away many a lecture in Theatre L doing just that.

BUT. Don’t think about the things you don’t want.

Don’t think about bad things. “Negative” things.

Because if you do, they’ll happen.

This was pre-therapeutic training, pre-therapy-ever, me. Naturally, I handled the situation like any secure, self-regulating adult would.

I hid the book in my parent’s garage.

Sorry Oprah.

“Don’t think negative thoughts” became my “Don’t think about a Pink Elephant”.

While at the time I didn’t know why I was having such visceral repulsion, I know now it was down to the power being attributed to supposed negative thoughts and how ultimately, they would be my downfall. Best to slap a smile on it and focus on the good. HappyHappyHappy.

It was illusional, and delusional, positivity.

Toxic positivity.

It’s likely, even if your trend-knowledge moves at a pace similar to my own, that you’ve come across the term Toxic Positivity. It’s used to describe the idea that regardless of what it is we have experienced or are currently experiencing, we should think positive, act positive and continuously look for the silver lining.

On paper, this may not seem all that bad but if you’ve been on the receiving end of it, you will know that rather than helping support our emotional wellbeing, on the whole it can leave us feeling unheard, alone or a burden for not being able to “be happy” or “find the good” in a difficult situation. Here are just some ways Toxic Positivity can impact our wellbeing:

1. It limits our relationships

It can be out of our mouth before we realise it, whether it’s to others or ourselves.

“You’ll be fine”

“At least you’re not X”

“You should feel happy with what you’ve achieved!”.

While our head and heart might have the very best of intentions, by forever trying to put a happy spin on things, what we’re actually communicating is ‘Let’s avoid this emotion’, ‘I’m uncomfortable’, and essentially, ‘This feeling is not welcome here’.

When we listen to find the silver lining, rather than listening to understand, we can inadvertently dismiss, invalidate and deny parts of who we and others are. This impulse may feel really difficult for us to override, particularly if a “brush it off” mentality was something we experienced growing up, or if it feels unsafe to acknowledge certain emotions within ourselves.

Sometimes, there might be a fear that if we do acknowledge another person’s struggles, we’ll make them feel worse. Just know, nobody ever felt worse for feeling heard. Instead of responding with the limiting statements above, try to listen and lead with compassion. This might sound like “I’m really sorry you’re going through this right now”, “That sounds really difficult”, “How can I support you?”. Find the words that fit for you. We may not always have the mental room to hold space for another’s pain but taking a moment to witness another where they’re at, can make both experiences slightly easier to bear.

2. It hampers healing

Every emotion has an energy that comes to the surface for expression. There will be times, whether we’re conscious of it or not, that we attempt to dampen these emotions from coming to the fore. Most of us will be well acquainted with the lump in our throat we might get as we try to push tears down, or the short, shallow breathing we change to during an argument. The mind and body works creatively and tries to temper emotions when it feels unsafe to show them. When an emotion is halted in its process, it places stress on the body and mind. The original emotion then may begin to manifest in other ways, as other symptoms, such as mental distress, digestive issues, anger, passive-aggression, headaches, anxiety, depression and so on.

Perhaps one of the bigger ironies of Toxic Positivity is that in continuously attempting to ignore uncomfortable feelings and focus solely on happiness and being happy, we place our mind and bodies under immense pressure. We all tend to avoid painful emotions in our lives. It’s how we cope, it’s what we’re taught, and in certain circumstances, it’s (temporarily) absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, when an emotion isn’t allowed to do its job, it sticks around and creates friction.

Pushing the positive vibes only agenda isn’t going to heal anxiety or depression, but it can contribute toward the mental and physical distress we feel alongside them. For the purpose of integrating and moving beyond difficulties, it requires us to recognise and safely feel the emotions that go along with our stories, all of which are stored in the body. If you notice a desire to move away from a difficult emotion or change the topic of conversation with a close friend, take it as an opportunity to exercise some curiosity about what might be happening for you and to show some compassion towards yourself. No emotion is inherently negative. It is data. It’s information being communicated to us, and sometimes we’ll want or need additional support in finding out what that might be, in the safest way possible.

3. It weaponises gratitude

Gratitude has made its way into our daily lexicon, and for good reason. Gratitude can be a wonderful practice for eliciting the feel-good-feels and for creating pockets of reflection in an otherwise hectic world, when (emphasis on the when) it is a choice. When the choice is removed, gratitude and the goodness it brings, goes with it. It becomes a should; a directive or a rulebook to abide by.

It can be quite insidious, this form of Toxic Positivity, and an issue that comes into the therapy room often, most notably with women. Outside the four walls of the therapy room, it’s a discourse most will be painfully familiar with.

You’ll sleep eventually. Just be grateful you have a child!

You’re not earning as much but you should feel grateful for having a job!

“It could be worse” is woven deep in the fabric of many of us.

While an “attitude of gratitude” can help with orienting towards the good, gratitude isn’t meant to silence, stun or shame. It embraces duality, and doesn’t come at the cost of our wellbeing, morals or truth. Acknowledging what’s not working is not the same as being ungrateful. You can be grateful and recognise what you’re outgrowing. You can be grateful and want more. You can be grateful and feel angry. You can also not feel grateful as gratitude isn’t something you owe anyone. The next time you feel pressured to be grateful, ask yourself “Do I feel grateful, or do I feel I should feel grateful?”

Be mindful of when positivity grows bars around you.

I want to meander back to The Secret. I know there will be many who feel they have reaped the rewards of the law of attraction- and this is grand, truly. We all have our own way of making sense of the world. I too like a bit of witchery and woo-woo as much as the next person (could be my Libra moon). For me though, I’ve found a greater sense of inner and reliable steadiness comes from unpicking and understanding, a curiosity of feeling, rather than a suppression of it.

Sometimes, I’m a reluctant excavator.

I’m learning to be happy okay with that.

Sarah Crosby is the author of Five Minute Therapy 


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