Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful And What To Say Instead

“You have to keep strong! or ‘Everything happens for a reason!” “Don’t grieve like a non-believer!” or “You need to stop moaning about him, and get over him already!” or “You’re young enough, you will still be able to have more kids!” Let’s pick your brains real quick…What do these five statements have in common? *Drum Roll*

They are those go-to phrases most people over-rely on during trying times, you might say! Or that, secondly, they discourage the person on the receiving end (or, yourself even!) to process their truest feelings. Or that, they reek of an unrealistic pressure to stay positive even when an incident doesn’t call for it. And don’t get us wrong, we’re not advocating for people to chuck their resilience out the window at the first sign of distress or to romanticise negative emotions.

But what we’re defs saying is that toxic positivity, as demonstrated in the musings above, tends to be inauthentic and unrealistic at the best of times — even though it may come from a heartfelt place.

READ MORE: Banesa Tseki On How Yoga Gave Her A New Lease On Life

Read The Room

By now, the above examples should’ve jogged your memory back to those incidents where someone’s statement left you thinking: ‘What in the name of tone deafness is that?’

Experts describe toxic positivity as unsolicited pressure to only display positive emotions while dismissing any negative emotions and experiences. It invalidates human experience and can lead to trauma, isolation, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Over the years, many research studies have found positivity to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve coping skills, increase physical wellbeing – including reducing the risk of cardiovascular issues – and
even lengthen your lifespan. However, when positivity turns is forced to the point of it being toxic, the results are considerably different. “Toxic positivity is beyond having a positive approach to life,” explains Dr Jennie Hudson,
a professor of clinical psychology.

“It extends beyond the edges of reality. It is insincere optimism, an extreme positive bias that ignores reality.” It also ignores the negative ramifications, both on those spreading toxic positivity and those on the receiving end.

Though optimism is a powerful tool, forced positivity isn’t helpful at all. In 2020, researchers at the University of found that “overestimating outcomes was associated with lower well-being than setting realistic outcomes”. Circa 2018, universities of Toronto and California researchers found that people who avoided acknowledging challenging emotions could actually end up feeling worse. Dr Hudson unpacks this, saying: “It is normal to experience painful events, or emotions like anger, sadness and guilt. If we live in a toxically positive environment that doesn’t allow us to experience emotions like anger or sadness, then we are robbed of important life experiences and lessons.” She adds that these emotions have a role in our lives, in childhood development, in our relationships. When we feel angry it is usually because someone has wronged us. When we feel sad it is because we have lost something important. These emotions help to guide us and our choices.

READ MORE: “Social media had me romanticising my mental illness and put me in a hole”

Say This Instead

When it comes to showing support or motivating loved ones, words matter far more than we think. Instead of finding yourself uttering words that will leave people rolling their eyes, life and relationship coach Megan Luscombe offers alternative approaches to “motivational” phrases.

INSTEAD OF: Look on the bright side 

RATHER SAY: “Sometimes there isn’t a bright side. I’ll stay with you in the dark for as long as it takes and when you want to turn the light on, I’ll help. “

INSTEAD OF: Everything happens for a reason 

RATHER SAY: “I’m sure you feel like you need a reason for this to have happened to make sense of it. What’s the story you’re telling so far? I want to support you.” 

INSTEAD OF: You’ll get over it

RATHER SAY: “Instead of thinking you have to get over it, let’s instead start to process it.” 

INSTEAD OF: It could be worse 

RATHER SAY: “Your feelings are valid. Don’t minimise your experience.” 

INSTEAD OF: Never give up 

RATHER SAY: “It’s OK to sidestep, press pause or even change our minds. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up; it means you’re re-prioritising.” 

INSTEAD OF:  It is what it is 

RATHER SAY: “What it is, is something that’s hurt/upset/disappointed you. You’re allowed to feel your feelings instead of dismissing them.”

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