In examining my past interactions with others, I have come to realise that I have unwittingly fallen into the trap of toxic positivity: an unhealthy focus on maintaining a positive mindset, and avoiding negative thoughts. It is the belief that people should put a “positive spin” on all experiences.
Take the times when friends approach me with bad news: I often find myself at a loss for words, trying to think of an appropriate response. Expressing commiserations seems to be an inadequate response; dwelling on the circumstances they face reinforces the negativity of the situation. So I turn to optimism instead. ‘It’s going to be okay’, ‘Better days lie ahead’, and ‘You’ll get through this’ are just some of the platitudes I’ve doled out to friends over the years.
I soon questioned if these reminders to others came from a genuine desire to help my friends, or if they stemmed from my own wish to feel better about the situation. And I wondered whether focusing excessively on positivity denied them the space to open up to me about the negative emotions that they were going through.
Effects of toxic positivity
While optimism – applied in moderation – can be highly effective as a form of motivation and in helping to improve our well-being, excessive positivity can have the opposite effect, with negative consequences that can be long-lasting. Isolation is one possible risk, as toxic positivity can lead to a sense of shame about negative feelings, deterring people from seeking help.
Toxic positivity can also cause us to downplay tragic events, such as the loss of a loved one. A 2016 study posits that feelings of sadness are a “genuine response to tragic situations”, while a 2014 paper on bereavement asserts that profound experiences of grief can serve as an expression of love, as a way for bereaved parents to “maintain a connection to a beloved deceased child.” An excessive focus on maintaining a positive mindset may hence be an inappropriate response in such situations, as it may hinder the process of grieving.
An obsession with positivity could also raise the risk of turning a blind eye to harmful situations. A 2020 review of studies pertaining to domestic violence suggests that an overly positive mindset can “place pressure on individuals by implying that they are responsible for their own happiness”. This could result in individuals being more likely to remain in dangerous circumstances, as the review found that women in shelters for domestic abuse with a positive attitude were “more likely to return to the offending partners.”
The constant pressure to stay positive can also be debilitating. In forcing ourselves to be constantly positive, we also deny ourselves the much-needed space to process negative emotions, which can be detrimental to mental health.
In a recent podcast, psychologist Dr Susan David refers to toxic positivity as “forced false positivity”, and suggests that there is “no research supporting the idea that false positivity – in other words, a denial of our experience – is helpful to us.”
Dr David explains that emotions are an indicator of one’s needs, and that suppressing emotions can have a negative impact on one’s mental health, as this is associated with “high levels of depression, high levels anxiety, low levels of problem-solving, low levels of relationship effectiveness.”
Changing our approach to negative emotions
It is important to consider why toxic positivity is still a pertinent problem we face. Perhaps the answer to this lies in re-examining our relationship with negative emotions. How do we regard negative emotions like worry, envy, anxiety, and anger, and is there a stigma towards displaying these feelings?
When the pandemic was well underway, I coped by telling myself not to be unhappy but to be grateful for my loved ones and health. ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do!’ was a regular mantra, as was reframing the increased time spent at home as opportunities to pick up new skills.
For a time, I threw myself into the consumption of TED Talks, online courses, podcasts and even music I did not enjoy, as I perceived these actions to be indicators of productivity and a positive mindset. My Instagram Stories were inundated with activities, such as baking and brush calligraphy, while topics like my fears and worries were rarely addressed on the same platform.
But managing the dichotomy between the attitude I felt I should espouse, and how I actually felt, soon became an unsustainable balancing act. It was difficult to make myself feel persistently optimistic, especially when emotions like sadness and worry surfaced.
I eventually realised that forcing myself to be always optimistic had become unhealthy: I had denied myself the space to process negative emotions, hiding this need beneath a frantic consumption of content to make myself feel more productive and positive. It took time to unlearn the notion that I had to be perpetually optimistic, and instead acknowledge the negative emotions I was experiencing.
To avoid toxic positivity, re-evaluating our perception of negative emotions is key, by understanding that such emotions are an integral part of our lives. It is imperative to maintain a balance between positive thinking and toxic positivity, and to recognise the differences between them. While healthy optimism validates one’s emotions by acknowledging negative experiences, toxic positivity denies negative emotions, discouraging the confrontation of one’s feelings.
In doing so, it is also crucial to understand the role that negative emotions can play in our lives. While a pessimistic outlook is commonly regarded as being detrimental to one’s well-being, it can also be beneficial. A study suggests that there is a difference between “pure” pessimism, in which one adopts a “fatalistic assumption of the worst”, and “strategic” pessimism, where negativity is used to anticipate potential faults and aid in the process of problem-solving.
Listening to and engaging with others’ emotions (both positive and negative) are also essential interactions, as is refraining from only adopting a positive response to those who seek counsel and/or a listening ear. Sometimes chasing #goodvibes isn’t the solution; counterintuitive though it may seem, sitting with negative emotions may be necessary to process experiences. Instead of positive clichés, acknowledge what they are facing, and be open to holding space for them to talk about what they are going through.
Ultimately, it is important not to negate the merits of optimism, and to be wary of crossing the line into toxic negativity, be it towards ourselves or in our interactions with others around us.
Resources and helplines if you need support
If you, or someone you know, need/s someone to talk to, resources are available:
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Silver Ribbon Singapore : 6385 3714
Care Corner Counselling: 1800 353 5800 (Mandarin)
TOUCHline: 1800 377 2252
National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868