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What is toxic positivity?

Positivity, optimism and an upbeat outlook are great tools in shaping a happy, healthy life. If something goes wrong, we're told to look on the bright side, and our social media feeds are filled with inspirational quotes.
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But to truly help, we should focus on authentic positivity that's used at the right time and for the right reasons. 

Research shows that when positivity is used inauthentically, inappropriately or in the wrong situations, it can backfire, and even make people feel worse. For example, many people recommend positive affirmations like, "I am a strong and independent person." However, research suggests that positive affirmations may only help those with already high self-esteem, and then only slightly.  

According to Dr. Heather Fulton, a psychologist at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, research also suggests that positive affirmations may actually do more harm than good for someone who has low self esteem. In fact, it may increase negative and self-critical thoughts and be harmful for those who need it most.

"Other emotions are all part of the experience of life. They may be more or less pleasant, we may like experiencing some more than others, and yet they all have value,"

So, while reading Instagram posts with motivational quotes might seem like it's going to help you feel better, when people overemphasize being "positive," they may interpret their non-happy emotions as "failures" or feel that their emotions aren't valid, explains Dr. Fulton.

Similarly, when talking to friends and family members who are distressed, it's natural to not know what to say, or to fall back on sayings we have all heard before, like "everything happens for a reason," "find the silver lining," or "this will make you stronger." Often, people can feel shut down, minimized or alone despite the speaker's best intentions.

If you want to avoid inadvertently making a friend or loved one feel worse when they come to you for help in a tough situation, or if you want to stop yourself from falling into a trap of toxic positivity, Dr. Fulton has some advice.

"Often we want to fix things make ourselves or another person feel better right away," she says. "It's important to recognize that you may not be able to fix the situation, or at least that the fix may be more complicated than it initially appears."

What can you do to support friends in distress?

If a friend comes to you for advice in a tough situation, there are lots of ways you can support them without falling into a toxic form of positivity.

"Reflect back what someone has said to make sure you really understand the situation before you start to offer any advice," says Dr. Fulton. 

"For example, a friend might be upset after the breakdown of a relationship. Instead of saying something quickly to make them feel better like 'there are plenty of fish in the sea,' try and understand their feelings first.

"You should also make sure you're validating the other person's emotions. While you may not always agree we with their reaction, or you may feel like you would have reacted differently in a situation, say you understand why they are reacting the way that they are, and emphasize that their emotions are okay and you're there to listen."

"It's important to recognize that you may not be able to fix the situation, or at least that the fix may be more complicated than it initially appears."

A good way to do this is to state feelings without passing judgement. For example, "It looks like you are upset," or "You're feeling really angry right now and you're wondering what to do next." Instead of jumping in with suggestions and advice, just listen and be present with them first and foremost.

What can you do yourself?

To help yourself get out of a pattern of toxic positive thinking, first recognize that it is impossible to be happy 24/7. 

"Other emotions are all part of the experience of life. They may be more or less pleasant, we may like experiencing some more than others, and yet they all have value," says Dr. Fulton.

"When we try to push down or numb ourselves to 'negative' emotions like anger or sadness, often they can come back even stronger or we can inadvertently numb ourselves to all emotions, including happiness. Often when we accept our emotions, it can actually make them more bearable and even change the way we feel."

If you want additional support with managing negative feelings, you can visit Here to Help BC, which has resources to help support struggling family members and yourself.

 
 
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