by Justin Standfield
I would guess that all of us know how damaging negativity can be – some might even describe it as toxic at times, given the impact that extreme negativity can have on our lives and our wellbeing. I wonder…am I the only person who has avoided someone who sucks the life out of me or unfollowed a social media account that drains me?
Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that positive thinking is good for us. You know, all that “always look on the bright side of life” stuff, which is surely good for our mental and physical health. The explosion of social media in recent years – especially Instagram – has added to this, which is something we explore on our Developing Self Acceptance programme at Incendo. So many participants have told me that they listen to ‘positivity’ podcasts and fill their social media feeds with motivational quotes – yet they still feel crappy much of the time. They ask me how this is even possible when Good Vibes Only is the mantra on their PC wallpaper. More than ever before, the pandemic has shown us that the world is most definitely not ‘love and light’ all the time.
Because some of my work at Incendo is within the field of Positive Psychology coaching, people have mistakenly assumed that it’s all about positive thinking and encouraging clients to maintain a ‘keep smiling no matter what’ attitude. This isn’t the case at all and a true representation of what is involved in Positive Psychology coaching can be found on this website here.
At some professional networking events I’ve attended over the years, it would be frowned upon to radiate anything other than 100% positivity and full-on happiness. One of them in particular was brimming with proponents of ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne (but I’ll save that for another blog entirely!). These networking experiences left me puzzled about the purpose of the events that are so keen to attract entrepreneurs and business owners through their doors, yet seem to shame them into fake jollity. What is it about events like this that causes us to feel like our exhaustion, our worries and our preoccupations are dirty little secrets that shouldn’t see the light of day? This strange quality has a name – toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is the tendency to pretend that everything is OK when it’s clearly not. It involves the excessive and over-generalisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. Yet we know from research in fields such as mental health, mindfulness and resilience that ignoring negative thoughts by compulsively looking on the bright side doesn’t make them go away. When we train our brains to ignore pain – our own and others’ – it also inhibits our ability to develop empathy and compassion. Occasional positive thinking can give you a boost when you’re a bit down in the dumps, it’s true. But saccharine happiness and platitudes like “good vibes only” and “just think positive” are making more and more of us feel more and more disconnected.
Here are my top four tips for reducing the effects of toxic positivity on your wellbeing and sense of connection:
- Consider whether you spend time with people who tell you that having negative thoughts, doubts or fears will only attract more negativity into your life. Whilst I’m certainly not advising you to ditch any of your friends, I would recommend that it’s more healthy to be open to all emotions. Mindfulness training can help to practise this.
- Be selective about the social media accounts that you give your attention to. For example, if scrolling through their Instagram leads you to feel ‘less than’ or wrong for having a life that’s not 24/7 glittering perfection, unfollow their account for a while. Of course, you can follow them again later but for now, why not get them off your feed?
- Read a book on either Positive Psychology or Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). I have two specific recommendations for you. The first is ‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman, who’s often referred to as the father of the Positive Psychology movement. His book explores our innate character strengths and how to develop them, rather than striving for an impossibly idealised image of happiness. The second book is ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Adams, which offers an accessible self-help guide to ACT, with assorted reflections, exercises and mindfulness activities. The book provides scientifically proven techniques to reduce stress and worry, and break self-defeating habits.
- If you’re already into self improvement, be aware that some pop psychology interventions out there (and the hashtags that go with them) such as Best Possible Self or Best You Yet invite us to contemplate a so-called best possible version of ourselves. If not used with caution, these exercises can easily become interpreted as a focus on “improving the imperfect self”. When this is the case, they may resonate with our deeply held belief that we’re not good enough or that we’re in some way deficient for not being ‘there’ yet.
Fundamentally, I think we really do need to remember that it’s OK not to be OK. If you haven’t ever seen the Pixar film ‘Inside Out’, please track it down and watch it (even if you don’t have children). My son was a bit ‘meh’ about it, I recall – but I loved it. The creators manage to design animated characters that personify our human emotions in such a realistic way; the film depicts sadness as an integral part of human experience instead of the ‘bad guy’ who must be eradicated at all costs.
I’ll finish this blog article with a quote from Mark Manson’s book, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’:
“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.”