Toxic Positivity: The Dark side of being positive

“Be positive”, “you will be fine”, “but at least you have friends/family” “it could have been worse”, I am sure all of you have heard phrases like these more than once in your life. In fact, these kinds of phrases individuals hear throughout their lives. How many times has it happened that one of your friends/ family members confided in you and you jumped to conclusions and said things like “oh come on, stop being such a baby, you are not the only one with problems”, “be happy/think positive”, or “just stay strong, everything will be better”. What you need to understand is that these things DO NOT MAKE A PERSON FEEL BETTER and is known as TOXIC POSITIVITY. In some cases, it is harmful too.

 Understandably, seeing our loved ones hurting our first instinct would be to help them as it is not easy and is distressing to see them in so much pain but what needs to be realized is that by saying these things we are not necessarily helping them but maybe making things worse for them. It is important to comprehend that it is impossible for a person to stay happy 24/7.  When we have this expectation from ourselves or others we are creating an environment that is unhealthy and causes more damage than good. Pain and distress are parts of life. Instead of using the clichéd phrases like “be positive” normalize not feeling good, being unhappy, confused, and distressed because these things are part of life. You cannot make the world a better place by ignoring things that cause distress. 

Now, the question that comes ahead is how does toxic positivity affect us?

This is the age of social media, everybody is on a digital platform while sometimes it is good, it can also make individuals doubt themselves. For instance, when you see stories like, “everything is good if you focus on the right things” or “be happy”, you might start doubting yourself and try to suppress your feelings. When you suppress your feelings they become bigger and the bigger they become the more unprocessed feelings are stored in your unconscious, which causes distress in your life. The more you try to deny or suppress your negative feelings or thoughts the more you have problems in maintaining interpersonal relationships. People will find it extremely difficult to connect with you or get annoyed with you when you dismiss their thoughts or feelings. They will always feel that you might not understand them or you might not even consider what they have to say or what they are going through.

Now let us look at some statements that are commonly used but are not beneficial.

  1. Be strong – contrary to the popular opinion, you don’t have to always stay strong. It is OKAY to cry, it is okay to feel that you can’t do it anymore. These are basic human emotions that each one us have. Instead of forcing yourself to be strong, be honest to yourself and what you are feeling and keep in mind, IT IS OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY!
  2. Focus on the Good-  When someone confides in you and you say this, the person starts to feel guilt, shame and starts to resent themselves for feeling this way. These unprocessed feelings are repressed into the unconscious, which causes a lot of distress in the future and also affects their self-concept and self-esteem. 
  3. What is it with you? Just start enjoying life – Individuals who are in depression or are dealing with trauma, already find it hard to manage their emotions, saying these things is downright, insensitive and cold. Take into consideration what they have been through and understand that it is completely normal for them to not be happy or cheerful.Llet them deal with it at their pace. 
  4. You have everything, start being grateful for it-  Having everything is not equal to being happy. Everybody has struggles and battles which we have no idea about.  So instead of belittling someone’s struggles by gaslighting them. Try to understand and know about them and their struggles.
  5. Weak people show emotions –  On the contrary people who show emotions, who share their feelings are much stronger and honest to themselves and to people around them.  It takes a lot of courage to speak about your feelings and struggles when society doesn’t recognise the concept of free emotional expression.
  6. Stop being so dramatic and negative all the time- The world is not white or black, it is grey. Everyone has different, needs, different thought process and different behaviour. Some people might get triggered by something that you don’t pay any heed to but it does NOT make them dramatic. They might have certain experiences that may be resulting in their “dramatic” behaviour. 

So after understanding what toxic positivity is and how it affects us, the next question is what should be said/done to be more supportive?

Be vulnerable –

Vulnerability is strength. 

When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, we provide people with strength and allow them to feel whatever they are feeling without any shame or guilt associated.  It helps us in forming deep and meaningful interpersonal relationships. A very interesting line said by Robin Roberts- “make your mess your message”. Everyone has their own set of battles to deal with. When you start becoming assertive about your struggles and become vulnerable people see it and also appreciate it.

 Communicate- 

Communication is very important. Nothing can replace it. Effective and honest communication is important in every aspect of life. When we communicate openly and effectively it helps to connect with people, to understand them and to be understood. It gives people a chance to share things with you and to trust you.

Be empathetic –

Empathy means being able to understand people from their perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy allows an understanding of what people are going through, what they are feeling. When we understand something from another person’s perspective it helps them in various ways, like they will feel that they are understood and not judged. They will like confiding in you because they know you will genuinely try to understand things from their perspective.

Listen –

Genuinely take interest in knowing someone. Practice active listening, and don’t advise until asked. Sometimes individuals just need to vent. When we start giving them unsolicited advice, they might feel that you don’t want to listen to them. Allow them to vent, don’t try to correct or dismiss what they are saying just because it doesn’t make sense to you, because the fact is lecturing doesn’t save lives, listening does.

“But I’m just trying to help”. Certainly, this sentence might pop in your head. Firstly, nobody doubts your intention. Everyone wants their loved ones to be happy and cheerful and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Although, if you want to help people instead of saying the phrases mentioned above try saying “ I am here for you talk to me”, “what can I do to help?”, “It is okay to not be okay” “it hurts so much to hear all this, I can’t even imagine the amount of distress it must be causing you”. These phrases will help your loved ones to confide in you more because they will feel validated. 

Ask what they need or how you can help them-

Don’t assume. Ask. When you assume people want your help or you do a particular thing for someone assuming that they might feel good, it might not turn out exactly as you hoped. When you do something for someone without consulting them, it is usually arising as a manifestation of your internal feelings and needs which might not be same as the other person. While you consciously may not make this mistake, it still won’t do any benefit to you or the person you did it for. Everyone is different and everyone has different needs. You should treat people how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated. So if you want to help people ask them, what do they need? Or how you should help them?

Don’t judge emotions as good or bad –

Emotions are emotions. There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions. Do not judge people what emotions they are feeling. When we do that, it creates a feeling that they are not good and they try to suppress those feelings, which inevitably cause them harm. Instead, give yourself time to understand your and other’s emotions. Genuinely listen without judging. Try to understand what is causing you to feel this way. Take your time and give others the time to process their emotions.

Don’t judge-

Instead of judging people or belittling their experience by saying unhelpful phrases, comprehend that everyone is unique. What might not seem a huge deal to you might be devastating for the other person. When you judge others based on their feelings, they feel invalidated, angry, stupid and are overwhelmed for feeling that way and they also might feel they should not have confided in you. It will only make them distant. To help them, communicate openly and empathetically, allowing them to feel whatever they are feeling without any label or tag.

 We all want the people we love to be happy but instead of forcing them to be happy wouldn’t it be better, if it comes from within? For genuinely wanting to help someone all you need to do is be kind. Everyone is suffering; it is something you can’t escape. Isn’t it better to fall together than to fall apart? Human connection is irreplaceable. It is time we use it in a way which helps us to form authentic and deep bonds, so that true happiness can be achieved.

#Content created by Kavya Tripathi

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