The effect of overly positive people
Toxic positivity harms
Last week’s post was Recognizing a controlling person, but you don’t need to read it to know what kind of person Putin is. In other situations, you may need the knowledge to prepare yourself. Meanwhile, thousands of lives will be lost in the most archaic way of resolving conflicts: Putin declared an unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine, in case you didn’t know. One evil person can do a lot of damage. My heart goes out to everyone who woke up to the insanity of the situation in Ukraine. I also wish Putin to choke on his lunch and kill over sooner rather than later… It’s the most compassionate of all the ideas I had about his fortunate demise.
And before you say “everything happens for a reason” in defense of “God knows what he’s doing,” read this week’s post below. I wrote it before the shit hit the fan so no further references to the Gaslighter-in-chief over in Russia.
Probably all of us know at least one person that seems to up-beat everything. We’ve all wondered if someone could stay “on” all the time. We’ve seen this “always happy, everything is perfect” vibe on social media and self-improvement material. Comparing ourselves to this over-the-top positivity may even make us question if there’s something wrong with us or we’ve missed a memo or two.
Is the world obsessed with positive thinking? Are people masking their unhappiness and misfortune? Are we gaslighted by the super positive? Or is there something we are missing?
For those that haven’t heard, positive psychology is a thing. It studies individual and collective wellbeing. It focuses on "positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions” aiming to improve quality of life. Theoretically, it establishes five pillars considered essential for a happy life – positive emotional states, engagement in life and activities, relationships with others, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments. It identifies six positive psychology traits – wisdom/knowledge, courage/bravery, humanity/compassion, justice/fairness, humility/mercy, gratitude/transcendence. Positive psychology popularized the term “flow” in which one surrenders to a state of effortless effort, concentration, and mastery, getting a sense that time is flying. Who doesn’t want that?
This 2009 meta-analysis of 51 different studies in the field, asked the question:
Do positive psychology interventions—that is, treatment methods or intentional activities aimed at cultivating positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions—enhance well-being and ameliorate depressive symptoms?
The results revealed that positive psychology interventions do indeed significantly enhance well-being… and decrease depressive symptoms...
…clinicians should be encouraged to incorporate positive psychology techniques into their clinical work, particularly for treating clients who are depressed, relatively older, or highly motivated to improve. Our findings also suggest that clinicians would do well to deliver positive psychology interventions as individual (versus group) therapy and for relatively longer periods of time.
Similar results were observed and confirmed in newer studies as well. The tools used by positive psychology became mainstream as the wellness industry, scholars, motivational speakers, and business gurus alike started recommending them. They include keeping gratitude journals, learning to think optimistically, engaging socially, cultivating good relationships, counting blessings, learning mindfulness and practicing loving kindness, learning how to set achievable personal goals and building on the success, focusing on strengths, working on forgiveness, recounting positive life experiences, etc.
Positive psychology critics warn against distorting reality by ignoring the way things are. As Tony Robbins says, “You can’t stand in your yard among the weeds, chant ‘there are no weeds, there are no weeds,’ and expect the weeds to disappear.” Scientists note that negative emotions have a role to play in the dynamics of human flourishing as they serve to calibrate us with life and motivate us to do something about things we dislike. They also help us properly assess risk and show us what we deeply care about.
Enter “toxic positivity”
While having an optimistic attitude in times of adversity can keep us going and hopeful, negative emotions must be acknowledged and processed for us to integrate the experience causing them into our learning and growing. Repressed negative feelings come back to haunt us and can hinder us in important junctions in life. Too many repressed memories and feelings can cause serious mental health challenges. Ignoring negative emotions causes us to look away from real-life problems and can prevent us from addressing them, which compiles the negative consequences. This leads to more negative emotions which we try to ignore. The cycle ends with a mess that could have been avoided if we remained “realistic” instead of overly positive.
When positivity becomes the goal and the only allowed emotional state, it becomes toxic. It obligates a person to sweep problems under the rug to keep up with the “positive Joneses.”
I would call toxic positivity “the malignant” growth in positive psychology. It’s like cancer. It doesn’t seem to cause any problems until you can’t get rid of it. Then it kills you. Or your relationships, career, and confidence!
Consequences of toxic positivity
It minimizes our resilience to adversity.
It distorts our understanding of reality and thus, limits our options for addressing challenges.
It can prevent us from assessing real harm and running to safety.
It can prevent us from seeking support and deter us from help asking for help and the resources we need.
It makes us unapproachable to people who feel disconnected from us, and their real-life concerns rejected or invalidated.
It deprives us of meaningful, deep relationship connections.
It causes communications issues in relationships with those who try to keep it real, honest, and vulnerable.
It demeans others’ losses and challenges, further confusing them or contributing to their grief and depression.
It makes us appear fake and unrealistic, compromising existing friendships and dooming potential future relationships.
It encourages others to ignore their unpleasant and confusing emotions, and when they feel unsuccessful to do so, it can contribute to reduced self-esteem, self-blame, and feeling powerless.
It’s a form of gaslighting as it invalidates others’ perception of reality and reframes their experiences as something that is not accurate, causing them to second guess themselves unnecessarily and confusingly.
Examples of toxic positivity
Social media takes the cake. Everyone lives their perfect life online and shares “good vibes only” memes all the time. They construct the reality they want others to believe in.
People who tell you “Look on the bright side” and “it’s going to get better,” “you’ll be fine” when you tell them something difficult you are going through.
You lost your job, and someone told you “Everything happens for a reason” and “find the silver lining.”
You lost a loved one and someone tells you “At least you still have your health.”
Mislabeling people who always appear positive who don’t say anything negative as stronger, more friendly, or well-liked.
Pushing people to thrive and making them feel bad for “not using their time well” after some sort of adversity that befalls them.
Telling someone “You’ll be OK,” and “it’s not a big deal” when they get hurt, especially children.
Why do we do it
Sometimes people just don’t know what to say when you deliver bad news. They don’t know how to be around grief and sadness. They feel uncomfortable being vulnerable and around the vulnerable. Some fear appearing negative, sad, and confused. They want to be liked and believe that positivity gets them likes. Others feel insecure and overcompensate by constructing a friendly, positive demeanor. Some try to fit in and emulate others. Or don’t want to deal with a situation. Don’t want to feel bad about what they’ve done, or what’s happened to them. Don’t know what to do and are following someone’s advice to stay positive no matter what. Sometimes, people just don’t think that what they say affects others or don’t want to get involved so they put out as little effort as possible and a positive spin on what they hear.
What to do about toxic positivity
Learn mindfulness and stay self-reflective so you can catch yourself in moments of self-imposed toxic positivity and stop. Try to connect to your honest experience. Name things as they are. See them for what they are, not better, or worse. Don’t judge. Just sit with the experiences.
Recognize negative emotions and unpleasant feelings as a normal part of life. Inquire into what they mean to you, why you experience them, and look for ways to address the underlying causes.
Turn to trusted, non-judgmental people or mental health professionals to talk things out and learn skills to cope, address your concerns, and work on your challenges while working on being realistic not overly optimistic.
Learn to listen to others sincerely for their sake. Put yourself in their shoes and see how you’d feel if someone invalidates your concerns or slams you with “everything happens for a reason.” If you won’t like it, others won’t either. In fact, do the world a favor and stop using the phrase altogether. Applying the phrase retroactively, as in the person should have known better, is mean. Applying the phrase pro-actively, as in better things must be down the line, is insensitive and could be totally untrue, at least for the foreseeable future. Try, “I am here for you if you need me” instead.
When I sense toxic positivity in my clients, I usually ask “how do you really feel?” I ask them to give me specific examples and to look at things from a different perspective.
When I look at the perfect lives people want the world to see on social media, I remember that the brighter the light in the front, the darker the shadow on the back. So, if you catch yourself comparing your ordinary life to the lives of others who seem to have a lot more fun and success than you, remember that every picture they post is posed, filtered, and enhanced for public consumption. That’s why when you see them in real life you can’t even recognize them.
And if you are the person seeking likes, putting a positive spin on everything, and masking your insecurity with posing and photoshopping, remember that the cure for insecurity is self-acceptance and becoming comfortable in your own skin while having real friends and people in your life who truly care about you and enjoy your company for its realness, closeness, and reciprocity.
In this respect, you can’t fake it until make it.
See below “Food for Thought” - forming opinions :)
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I’ve been addressing how we make decisions and form opinions in various ways through a few posts recently.
This video by VOX walks the viewer through how people (mostly conservatives) arrived at the decision to not get vaccinated. It’s not what you think. It’s worth watching the evolution of the divide and considering how you arrived at your decision to get/or not get vaccinated. Click on the above link if the video player does not automatically load for you.
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