IS your social media feed thronged with positivity posts for 2023? Mine too. And I find it really unsettling. There are different types of positivity ranging from a healthy, helpful and realistic positivity to a more unhelpful toxic positivity. The increase in toxic positivity posts is particularly unhelpful because it creates an unreliable gauge of how a person is feeling and doing in their lives which moves people away from really knowing how they’re feeling, who they are and what they might need for life to be okay.
So what is toxic positivity?
It’s all about avoiding anything which could be construed as negative and replacing it with something positive. It’s the replacing bit that is dangerous for us all. One of the most common things I get told in therapy from clients is “I tried to pretend it (a situation/feeling) wasn’t there, but the more I pushed it away, the louder it came back.” It’s at this stage that things become unmanageable. Pushing things away and replacing what’s hard with something nice simply doesn’t work.
Here’s the thing, as humans we are designed to experience suffering. We all have the potential to experience loss, sadness, moods, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger and fear, and we experience these because of the way that we’ve been designed, which isn’t anyone’s fault.
These important emotions, feelings and states of being are letting us know if we are ok or not. Ignoring them doesn’t do us any justice.
We all experience two languages - the language of logic where things make sense and things fit how we’d like them to, then we have the language of emotions which is our feelings. And when we ignore a part of something which we are feeling on a cellular and emotional level we increase our chances of struggling mentally.
Because we are missing out on the opportunity to create a balanced mind. What creates real mental strength is the cultivation of the skills and qualities it takes for our minds to be flexible and compassionate. For this to happen, all the characters that live inside of us must be given a seat in our minds. When we invite all the parts of ourselves in, we can begin to understand them and figure out what they need so that they don’t run the show.
If we replace this process with a simplified “just be positive”, it pays no attention to what’s actually being felt. And it’s in this no-man’s land that the difficult, critical voices are given a space to thrive.
Toxic positivity doesn’t account for so much of what’s important to understand as part of being human and identity creation. Toxic positivity doesn’t allow a difference of opinion, uneasy feelings, feeling unsafe, being undervalued… I could go on.
I’m all for being optimistic, but toxic positivity actually veers towards being unsafe as it stops people tuning into their really important senses of fear, anxiety and overwhelm which are designed to keep us safe. So often on social media I see the antidote being offered for feeling overwhelmed is to remember what you’re grateful for in your life, but this might not allow a person to make practical changes that would help.
We have a gut instinct for a reason, it’s like our spidey senses telling us if things aren’t safe for us and without this things get dangerous. Pretending everything is okay when it’s not, is dangerous emotionally, but can also be dangerous practically too.
So what can we do instead of toxic positivity?
What we want is to create an inner ally, a voice who has our best interests at heart regardless of if we are feeling a little more up or a little more down. A balanced mind has to be realistic too and happens when we pay attention to all of what is going on inside. The most helpful way of doing this is by cultivating a compassionate mind. What this does help is to recognise what’s hard (no pretending life’s a peach) and helps us to cultivate the skills and qualities to do something about it. Imagine that there was a voice inside who was committed to helping you through any problems, had the wisdom to guide you, spoke to you with kindness, warmth, sensitivity and didn’t judge you.
This is your compassionate inner self, a million miles away from the flaky positivity social media would like us to fall for. This is the most reliable voice, who you can rely on through the ups and downs.
Remember that most of what’s hard in life isn’t a person’s fault. No-one chose the family or life situation they were born into, DNA they’ve inherited or the way our brains are wired for negative emotions which think they’re keeping us safe.
Toxic positivity moves us all away from taking responsibility for what’s hard and if we are collectively trying to create a better world, it starts with us taking responsibility for our bit. The wisdom of compassion will certainly help us to do that.
Bethan O’Riordan is a Psychotherapist and member of the IACP. She runs the Calm Parenting Club and is co-host of The Mum Mind Podcast. If you think you might need to talk to somebody professional, make sure that who you go to is qualified and accredited. www.iacp.ie has a register of qualified, accredited and experienced counsellors and psychotherapists nationwide.