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Positivity that is good for you does not disregard reality. Which type of positivity do you practise? Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash.com

You must be wondering: How can positivity ever be bad? Clubbing together ‘toxic’ and ‘positivity’ sounds contradictory.

Many of us get through the day with hope, gratitude and words of encouragement. When today is a particularly hard day, some of us have faith that tomorrow will be better. Through positivity, we’re able to cope with life’s challenges in a healthier way.

A 2016 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed 70,000 women enrolled in a nursing program for eight years. Students who were most optimistic in life had a lower risk of dying from cancer, heart diseases, infections and respiratory diseases, than those who were less optimistic.

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If you describe yourself as an optimistic person, according to science you're less prone to developing cancer and heart diseases. Image Credit: Benigno Hoyuela/Unsplash.com

Psychologists, especially those in the field of positive psychology, have been touting the benefits of joy, interest, contentment and love for decades now. These positive emotions open up our brain pathways, says a 2001 study in the American Psychologist academic journal of American Psychological Association (APA).

So the more we laugh, engage in play and are curious, the more we think creatively and flexibly. The same APA study, titled ‘The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology’, notes that feel-good emotions are antidotes to sadness, anger and anxiety as well.

Then, when does positivity become toxic for us?

Positivity versus toxic positivity

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Negative feelings are part and parcel of life, oftentimes behaving like warning bells we need to listen to. Image Credit: Victor/Unsplash.com

From 2019 on, the internet was abuzz with the term toxic positivity, as per Google trends. Social media posts were brought under fire for pushing the ‘good vibes only’ slogan. What’s wrong with that, you ask? The problem lay in ignoring feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment and frustration, because they’re often seen as ‘wrong’.

We’re able to live a richer, more resilient life when we experience the full spectrum of human emotions – the good and the bad. Positive psychology does not overlook the bad; it’s realistic.

Positivity arises from accepting a negative situation, and then becoming hopeful for the possibilities and actions that you can take to improve it.

- Ritasha Varsani, a Community Development Authority (CDA) licenced psychologist at LifeWorks Clinic, Dubai

“Positivity arises from accepting a negative situation, and then becoming hopeful for the possibilities and actions that you can take to improve it. This gives rise to the feel-good factor. It’s the realistic approach to positivity,” said Ritasha Varsani, a Community Development Authority (CDA) licenced psychologist at LifeWorks Clinic, Dubai, told Gulf News.

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Masking difficulties with a smile, without sufficient time for processing, is a harmful shortcut to positivity. Image Credit: Polina Zimmerman/Pexels.com

What’s not realistic is taking the shortcut to feeling good. By forcing positivity at all times, without any regard for why you’re down, can make a bad situation worse.

"It’s a lot like when a person is going through a panic attack, and you tell them it’ll be fine, you’ll get through it,” said Varsani.

Toxic positivity promotes the idea that when things are difficult, we must always look to the bright side, by glossing over the pain.

Covering up grief with too much of positivity can cause underlying depression, anxiety and adjustment difficulties.

- Aakriti Mahindra, a CDA-licenced clinical psychologist, Dubai

“We see this in grief, especially now, because of Covid-19. We’ve lost too many people. Covering up grief with too much of positivity can cause underlying depression, anxiety and adjustment difficulties,” Aakriti Mahindra, a CDA-licenced clinical psychologist in Dubai, told Gulf News.

When we engage in toxic positivity “... we’re training our minds to enter a denial phase”, added Mahindra.

Forcing toxic positivity onto yourself can…

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Taking the shortcut to feeling good with forced positivity can push a lot of underlying issues to the surface. Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels.com

• Disguise what we’re truly feeling: You might miss out on what your negative emotions are trying to tell you. Anxiety, for instance, tells us that something needs changing, be it at work or in a relationship. Jumping from a negative emotional state to a positive one, without looking at what’s happening in between, can give us a false sense of reassurance.

“Negative emotions are a guiding point. Engage with and stay in that feeling for some time, don’t suppress it. You might want to share these feelings with someone you trust,” said Varsani.

Toxic positivity is also another form of ‘gaslighting’, a popular culture term for invalidating yours or others’ feelings.

• Cause us to enter a state of denial: Dealing with negative emotions is uncomfortable and stressful. But experts say acknowledging them will help you to naturally move on to a positive state.

“I always say acceptance is the key to success,” said Mahindra. “I’d ask myself: ‘Let’s see how I can improve the situation’; then I’d jot down what happened that day, think about the experience and why I feel bad about it.”

In a state of ‘positive’ denial, we also stop ourselves from growing. Surviving through some tough times is incredibly taxing, mentally and physically, but we come out of it stronger and more resilient to life’s challenges.

• Push us past our breaking point: Dismissing your negative feelings, in favour of a happy front, will eventually put a crack in your façade. Mahindra says we all have our limits when it comes to pain and anxiety, and once it’s reached, it can bring several other problems with it.

“Parents will often come, confused about why their child is suddenly throwing a tantrum. It’s only because they were dismissed to that breaking point,” she added.

When a loved one is going through a hard time…

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Here are some ways of practising positivity with a friend who is going through a difficult time. Image Credit: Liza Summer/Pexels.com

• Acknowledge their situation: It’s alright to not have a good handle on your friend or loved one’s situation or feelings – what you can do, however, is show them that you see and hear their suffering. Try: This must be hard. What can I do for you?

• Listen, if they want to share: “We have a general tendency to give quick solutions to make others feel better. People just want to share their pain; they’re not looking for answers,” said Varsani. “Hear the person out without being judgemental.” Try: What’s on your mind?

• Validate them: Someone or the other will always be in a worse situation than us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve empathy. “All feelings are valid – don’t shut the person down by saying ‘you’ll be fine’. We can hurt them,” added Varsani. Try: Your feelings are important and they matter.

Positivity in moderation means looking at both peaks and valleys in life, “... and positive psychology does not deny the valleys”, writes Christopher Peterson, an American professor of psychology, in his book ‘A primer in Positive Psychology (2006)’.

A cheery outlook on life can take us far, as long as it’s grounded in reality.