“Relax, bro! Why are you always so pessimistic? Don’t think all that negative stuff. Come on, be positive, man. It’s going to be alright, be happy!“
This statement has undertones of a classic toxic positivity. I’ve heard this (or similar) phrase a lot whenever I shared about my problems, setbacks, and failures. In all honesty, this was my go-to phrase and an automated advice for anyone who shared their problems with me as well. This advice largely never worked for me, and I’m pretty sure it has not worked for others as well.
Given that we all hear these phrases every now and then, and given the internet world full of motivational instagram posts & pinterest images, the toxic positivity is not only futile in solving our problems, but also creates additional problems for us.
Those thoughts that pops up and makes us feel worried, guilty, and/or ashamed is termed as “intrusive thoughts”. All those thoughts of “What if I’m not as good as others think?“, “Why am I always a burden to others?“, “I’m the worst person in the world” are examples of intrusive thoughts which can cause distress, since its nature might be upsetting. Even if one is of a sound mind and free from mental health issues, it is possible to be struck by intrusive thoughts out of nowhere.
So why do we have intrusive thoughts? Turns out, these thoughts are what kept humans alive, with our brain’s flight or fight response. Our brains have evolved to keep us safe by continually scanning for dangers. These thoughts are the results from danger scans.
What keeps the thought going? Simple – we try to avoid it. That is what keeps the thought going. The more we try to push it away, more it sticks to us.
Learn about thoughts escalation here.
DO NOT THINK ABOUT GIANT RATS
Whatever you do, do NOT think about GIANT RATS. Just don’t. DO NOT THINK ABOUT GIANT RATS. I repeat – DO NOT! Master Splinter? I said don’t!
How did it go?
This is a common brain paradox – If we are trying to avoid a thought, our brain focuses on it more. Scumbag brain!
This is exactly why the “don’t think about it” advice never works. If you suppress thinking about your ex, you’ll eventually think more about him/her. This study on paradoxical effects of thought suppression proves that when you’re asked not to think about something, it actually makes you more likely to think about it.
As Mark Manson, author of ‘The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck’ writes, “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.“
TOXIC POSITIVITY – WHY DOES IT HARM MORE?
Toxic or forced positivity – Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist, explains this term as the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’ emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or “positive vibes”.
Toxic positivity can take many forms: It can be a family member or a friend who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can be a suggestion to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have” by completely discarding the problems.
In this time of COVID-19 global pandemic, the situation is even more dire. This pandemic has intensified the already unprecedented and uncertain future, and our automated reflexes is most likely to be overly optimistic or positive to avoid accepting a dreaded reality. Let’s accept – our lives aren’t just roses, but with thorns as well. And as Susan David, PhD says, “We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard.“
RESEARCH EXPERIMENT ON TOXIC POSITIVITY
Several studies (Gross and Levenson, 1997) show that suppressing thoughts and hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings
In Gross and Levenson’s study, research participants were divided into two groups and shown disturbing medical procedure films while their stress responses were measured (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production). One group was asked to watch the videos while letting their emotions show whereas the second group of subjects were asked to watch the films and act as if nothing were bothering them.
The result? Those participants who suppressed their emotions (acted as if nothing bothered them) had significantly more physiological changes . The emotional suppressors may have appeared cool and calm but on the inside their stress was erupting!
Courtesy of The Psychology Group, you can find how to turn toxic positive advices to non-toxic acceptance and validation here.
Let’s understand – suppressing, denying, and avoiding does not work. Sometimes, we need to ACCEPT the negatives. Furthermore, as mentioned in this paper, the ability to regulate our emotions is associated with greater well-being, income, and socio-economic status. Accepting the negative, and navigating what our emotions are telling us is the step forward to overcome this spiral of intrusive thoughts & toxic positivity rumination. Also, tragic optimism can be the antidote to toxic positivity. I’ll explain more about this in my next post.
Remember: It’s okay not to be okay.