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Rethinking the Need and Expectation to Be Positive: Is it Helpful or Harmful?

Updated: Nov 25, 2023


Keeping a positive outlook and always seeing the upside

is good for us, right?


Well... yes, there are significant benefits to identifying positives in our life and in what lies ahead. Recognising what’s good and being optimistic for the future can provide hope and reduce distress. Many studies identify a link between a positive / optimistic outlook and our overall wellbeing (1)


However, there are times and circumstances where being positive isn’t possible, it feels disingenuous and can even make matters worse.




Do any of these statements ring a bell?


  • "It’s a lovely day, go take a walk/have a swim, you’ll feel better”.

  • "Come on, it’s not the end of the world”.

  • “Ah well, look on the bright side....”

  • “Maybe it was for the best”.

  • “It could have been worse”.

  • “Try not to dwell on it".

  • "At least it's not.... "

  • “You’ll get over it”.

  • Think Positive!”


You may have said something similar to a friend, colleague or loved one, all with good intentions. Alternatively, you may have been on the receiving end of such comments at a difficult time in your life. If so, you are likely to understand how these types of responses, to someone in distress or feeling sad, can be unhelpful. They invalidate what a person is feeling and experiencing.


The problem is that life isn't always positive, and as human beings with a complex range of emotions, learning how to notice, accept and mange difficult emotions during challenging times is vital for our personal growth and overall wellbeing. We’re not designed to consistently only acknowledge the positives.



The tendency to view ‘looking on the bright side’, as the best way forward regardless of a person’s experience, has earned the moniker of TOXIC POSITIVITY


This represents an overemphasis on positive thinking and an avoidance or denial of negative and distressing emotions or experiences (2)


This largely occurs when social and/or familial expectations dictate the need to always focus on being positive, with an assumption this will negate negative feelings.


However, faking your emotions won't make them go away.


When we avoid any kind of emotional discomfort, and physical pain, we end up

unintentionally making those feelings larger, louder, more overwhelming and increase the potential for feeling unable to cope (3)


When someone is experiencing difficult feelings such as sadness, anger, frustration, grief, self-doubt guilt or fear, they need human connection that offers a listening ear and validation. They don’t need their feelings minimised, or to feel pressured to conform to an unrealistic expectation of positivity.


Toxic positivity is often subtle, and many of us have engaged in this type of thinking without recognising the possibility of it being unhelpful.


Being aware of it happening provides opportunity to shift the focus and open the door to offering more authentic support when challenging times are present, which is far more likely to be helpful than inappropriate positivity.


If you notice any any ill-placed

positivity statements:


1) in your response to others - consider alternatives to ensure the other person feels heard and understood. You can use tatements such as -


“That must be really hard”. “That's so not fair, how can I help?"


"I'm here no matter what." "Whoa, that's tough"



2) from others responding to you – let them know how you feel and your need to express this, highlighting that trying to be positive is not helpful for you 'right now.'



Remind yourself that: If someone doesn't feel okay, that's perfectly acceptable and a normal human experience.


Difficult emotions can be managed, and whilst positive thinking is often beneficial, it is not always helpful for our long term mental health.






References:


1. McNulty, J.K., & Fincham, F.D. (2012) Beyond positive psychology. American Psychologist. Vol 67(2), Feb-Mar, 2012 pp. 101-110. Publisher: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/a0024572


2. Upadhyay,I.S., Srivatsa,KVA., & Mamidi.R. (2022). Towards Toxic Positivity Detection. In Proceedings of the Tenth International Workshop on Natural Language Processing for Social Media, pages 75–82, Seattle, Washington. Association for Computational Linguistics


3. Bhattacharyya, R., Bhattacharyya, M. N., & Sharaff, M. S. (2021). Toxic Positivity and Mental Health–It is ok to Not Be ok. Design Engineering, 5109-5127.


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