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Opinion: The increase in toxic positivity driven by social media is destructive and unhelpful

Therapist Bernie Hackett says the culture of ‘staying positive’ denies a person their true feelings and stifles healing.

Bernie Hackett

TOXIC POSITIVITY IS the expectation that we have only positive emotions at all times. Although the exhortation to “think positive” has been around for years, and certainly, there are situations in our lives for trying to avoid or reduce emotional pain and “looking on the bright side” can be a form of consoling ourselves when life can feel overwhelming.

However, “to think positive” is becoming increasingly pervasive, with slogans such as “positive vibes only” abounding on social media.

Unfortunately, to exist with positive vibes only is an impossibility – it is contrary to the complexity of emotions that comprise a human person.

Positive or bust

Social media itself feeds on the idea of continuous positivity – it suits the medium. It is easily consumed and requires no in-depth contemplation. On social media, people’s lives are curated and presented so only the best is on show.

In this curated world, our validation can literally be measured in likes. Toxic positivity discourages the expression of difficult and messy emotions, and ultimately, our difficult and messy selves, which can’t be sanitised and tidied into a slogan or an appealing picture.

It should however be noted that some social media has been hugely transformative in opening up conversations around difficult topics, and that is to be welcomed. But, for all that is good, much of it is peddling perfection.

There are many dangers with a mindset that is relentlessly positive. Negative emotions more often than not crop up for a reason, and if we are to ignore that, we will miss what our emotions have been trying to tell us. In some cases, real harm can be ignored – a 2020 study by The University of East London suggests that overgeneralised positivity exacerbates harm and abuse and that an optimistic bias can put victims of abuse in danger, refraining to leave abusive relationships.

Being superficially positive can be deeply negative. If we are no longer authentic, our true selves may not be seen and our real needs may not be met. Relationships may suffer through a lack of true relating and genuineness.

Toxic positivity is like a straitjacket, limiting human emotion to only those that are perceived to be most palatable to others.

However, other people can naturally perceive when a person is being true to themselves and conversely, it may become the case that the practice of toxic positivity becomes more repelling than attractive.

The search for happiness

Positivity is a mindset that attempts to evince happiness. Ironically, putting a premium on happiness has been shown to lead to unhappiness, with studies demonstrating that the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.

Further studies have shown that a culturally-pervasive value placed on attaining happiness can represent a risk factor for symptoms and a diagnosis of depression.
Growth lies in self-acceptance and self-acceptance means having to come to terms with the true nature of who we are, and our full emotional palate.

A 2018 study from University of Toronto and Berkeley suggests that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health.

Through laboratory, diary and longitudinal studies, it was found that acknowledging feelings reduces distress and anxiety symptoms. Toxic positivity means to deny our unwanted emotions, effectively diminishing our own experience.

Suppression never works

Repeated studies have shown higher levels of negative affect, lower levels of positive affect, poorer social adjustment and decreased wellbeing are associated with repeated emotional suppression.

Toxic positivity is an invitation to suppression. By encouraging people to know and present only a modified version of themselves, it is also a recipe for loneliness, as true self-expression has no outlet, and opportunities for real connection are curtailed.

Pain and suffering are inevitable facets of life. They cannot and they should not be avoided. Our trials strengthen us, make us more resilient, give us character and colour. They also strengthen our compassion for others. It is one thing to suffer, but to pretend that everything is hunky-dory is to add to the suffering.

We will carry pain with us whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. We don’t relieve pain by escaping it but by facing it.

We need to remind ourselves that happiness does not mean avoiding the reality of our lives but accepting ourselves in all our humanity with our strengths and weaknesses

We can stem the tide of toxic positivity in simple ways. One of them is to limit time spent online, muting those you find grating, or following those who you truly admire for themselves. We can invite authenticity, when meeting another person, by simply asking “how are you really feeling.”

Journaling can give us the opportunity to clarify our thoughts and feelings. It is vital that we welcome the full range of the human experience into our hearts and endeavour instil the more holistic mantra of “all vibes only.”

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Bernie Hackett is an accredited member and Chair of the Irish Association for Counselling and psychotherapy (IACP). 

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