March 13, 2021

Toxic Positivity: Why the Positive Police may be doing us More Harm than Good.


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“Keep your chin up, stay positive.”

How many times have we heard these statements or said them to others ourselves?

When being told of a friend’s ill health or heartbreak, instinctively we heed the “stay positive” line. We may listen with what we believe to be true empathy, we may wish them only to feel better, we may want them to focus on the good, we may truly believe that “stay positive” is a beacon for them, the light at the end of their tunnel—that we are giving them hope.

In our workplaces we are demanded to show a positive attitude, deliver positive messages, and create a positive working environment.

In our homes, we are called negative when speaking out or deemed a drain when expressing emotions when something upsets or frustrates us.

We are vilified by the positive police if we have anything to say that disturbs the status quo—that confronts an emotional response, that doesn’t sit in accordance with another’s mood.

Society’s categorisation of emotions is clear:

Negative emotion = Bad emotion

Positive emotion = Good emotion

But surely they are all just emotions, ones that we are destined to feel in full at some stage in our lives, so why categorise them into emotions to be okay with and emotions to be avoided? Pain is inevitable.

I have always felt a little uneasy with this positive reinforcing rhetoric, always felt a bit fraudulent telling someone who was in intense pain “to think positive.” Similarly, when I have had this said to myself, it’s always left me feeling more pissed off than pacified. It wasn’t until today that I fully understood why. One Ted Talk and a brilliant podcast later, I finally understand that this is “Toxic Positivity” in play, and I am calling bullsh*t on it!

Today I listened to a TED Talk that completely blew me away; the talk is given by Dr. Susan David on her research into emotions. Susan David is the author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. She is also a celebrated psychiatrist and professor of research at Harvard Medical School.

Susan’s Ted talk (watch below), “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” talks in some detail about the negative/positive messaging that we engage with and label people with.

Her findings show that instead of positive reinforcement, the “be positive” message is incredibly damaging. She goes onto explain that by constantly reinforcing the “be positive” mantra in the face of someone’s pain, grief, heartbreak, or sadness, we are inadvertently shaming them for having these feelings. Invalidating their pain, and frankly making things a whole lot worse.

In Susan’s words: “Being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.”

She labels it as being a “tyranny of positivity”—and I must agree!

So, what is the outcome of this forced, false positivity?

People are forced into a place of rigid denial, and that inevitably is an unsustainable place to be. It causes us to deny the pain, bottle up the emotions, or at worst, bury them to the point we explode.

I won’t go on to list the ways in which we can escape this false narrative or list the ways in which we can change the landscape or be more effective in helping our people that are suffering without the negative shaming. I will let Susan explain this herself.

This video is worth every one of the 15 minutes it is on for, and after you have watched it, perhaps you will think twice before reaching for the “think positive response.”

“Toxic Positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous on the surface but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they are really saying is, ‘My comfort is more important than your reality’” ~ Dr. Susan David


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