Toxic Positivity: What is it, & How To Stop It Ruling Your Life

23 Aug 2021

Scroll through social media feeds, and see nothing but happy faces? Seen a friend post a recent snap of her driving holiday (#thanksCOVID) gazing happily into the camera, but know from your last catch up she’s deeply miserable in her job?

In a nutshell, that’s toxic positivity and it’s ruining our lives.

With social media #inspo clogging our feeds, it’s hard not to feel pressure to come across as though we are living our best lives all of the time.

And while that’s totally fine if that’s you, for most of us, being happy all of the time is impossible, whilst trying to cover up true feelings with fake layers of happiness becomes exhausting.

So, what is toxic positivity?
The phrase toxic positivity is the culture of portraying yourself as being happy all of the time and no matter the circumstance.

When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or have faced some major preventative surgery, that’s not only completely unrealistic but entirely exhausting.

Toxic positivity is also the idea of encouraging people to always try to see the bright side, and not open up or be authentic about the bad stuff.

“Good vibes only,” or “it’s no big deal!” are peak examples of toxic positivity and it’s a behaviour that needs to be called.

“At least you’re only high risk, and don’t actually have cancer,” or perhaps, “your cancer only stages 1, look on the bright side!” again reflect a really unhelpful attitude that can devalue your emotions and exacerbate feelings of unhappiness.

Whether it’s you telling yourself this, or your friends trying to cheer you up, neither is helpful to the situation you find yourself in.

Why do we do it, and why is it a problem?
For a lot of us, portraying a certain ‘persona’ may have seen you gain new friendships and develop stronger social connections, because people never see you without a smile, you’re always the ‘life of the party’ or the ‘fun one’. Or, perhaps like so many of us, you feel the social pressure to want everyone to think your life is amazing, even if you’ve just had a preventative mastectomy, or undergone your most recent round of chemo!

If you’re guilty of this behaviour, but also consciously aware, it’s highly likely you’ve done it with the best of intentions to help a friend who’s down, without even realising the impact or problem with the behaviour – and that’s OK! Because we’re going to tell you how to fix it.

Toxic positivity becomes a problem when we sit on our issues and ignore them, instead layering our lives with fake happiness, from posting inaccurate ‘happy’ memes, that suppress or instead not being truly authentic with our friends about the realities of life with a high risk of, or diagnosis of cancer.

According to psychologist, author and all-round incredible human, Dr Jodie Flemming, toxic positivity becomes a problem when ‘platitudes of ‘just stay positive and it will all be alright’ can be offered as if thinking will make it so.’

According to Jodie, ‘If the person at high risk of cancer is naturally an optimistic and positive person, then it’s okay for them to continue to use that state as a coping mechanism, however, it should not come at the cost of denying themselves the ability to express any emotion, no matter how uncomfortable it is, including fear and anxiety.’

How can we get better at avoiding toxic positivity?
It all comes down to being OK with your issues, reflecting and addressing what it is that is making you unhappy.

A study has found that accepting and not rejecting our negative emotions actually helps us better defuse them and leads to fewer negative emotions over time. This in turn causes better overall psychological health. A study published in the journal Emotion found chasing happiness can cause us to obsess over any not-happy feelings, bringing us more unhappiness overall.

According to Jodie, it’s also important to weed out the toxic positive people in your life; call them on their behaviour, and chose to spend less time with them, if this behaviour doesn’t serve you during your period of recovery and reflection.

‘It’s okay to be assertive and express a need for the Toxic Positives to listen in place of offering platitudes; to ask for them to give space for discomfort and authentic experiences and hard conversations; for them to seek their own support (not with you!) if the realness of your situation is difficult for them; ask them for what you need – how can they help you?; and most importantly, ask them for empathy.’

It’s also important to clean up your social media feeds. Don’t feel guilty for unfollowing, ‘snoozing’ or un-liking any person, page or brand that does not serve you emotionally, because at the end of the day, fighting our negative emotions actually does more harm than good!