“Stay positive.” We’ve all been told this or said it to someone at some of the most challenging moments in life. It is meant, I think, to make the person facing a difficult time feel better and focus on anything other than the difficulty they’re facing.

For the longest time, such phrases have bothered me, but I didn’t really investigate the roots of why they did. If anything, I dismissed it as me potentially being… a pessimist?

Fast forward to 2020, when our world as we knew it changed in an unprecedented way due to a global pandemic caused by a respiratory virus. We suddenly found ourselves in a live horror film that has no end in sight. The consequences of which are still being experienced a year later. People are still losing loved ones, jobs and salaries – businesses are shutting down or trimming down, economies are tanking, and so much more.

Safe to say, there’s a lot of hurt doing a round tour to people in our circles and communities. In most cases, when I see others in such circumstances, I find myself, in addition to empathising, reflecting on my situation and noting my privileges. In the moments of reflection, I think it makes sense for people like me, who have not been significantly impacted, to feel like we don’t deserve to complain or exhibit frustrations we are experiencing. Because, in comparison to what many are facing, they’re not as big.

But here’s the thing, my experiences matter and my feelings are valid. Not voicing or sharing them doesn’t negate the fact that they exist. There’s no amount of “staying positive”, “looking on the bright side”, “considering that it could be worse”, “everything will work out just fine”, or “it will be fine, don’t worry” would change that fact.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to be positive and use words of comfort in a tough situation, entering the realm of toxic positivity can cause more harm than intended, even from a well-meaning person and, at times, from our own thoughts.

What is toxic positivity? It refers to the belief that we should always put a positive spin on any situation or experience, no matter how tragic they are. It is a profoundly unhealthy way to navigate experiences and emotions. It’s especially tragic when you consider that we’re grappling with different types of mental illnesses that we barely speak of. Sometimes we go through emotions we can’t put into words because we cannot understand them. How are we to seek healing if all we do is dismiss or avoid real emotions and focus only on wishful feelings?

I think we ought to unlearn the misconception that all negative emotions are valueless. Or that we shouldn’t dwell on them too much. Because we should, they are emotions that we all experience from time to time and under certain circumstances. Feeling sad, hurt, anxious, fearful, lonely, angry, guilty and hopeless is only natural. Pretending that they’re not or obsessing on avoiding or getting rid of them is problematic.

It is okay not to be okay. It’s okay to sit with the discomfort of not being okay.

Putting a value on positive emotions over negative ones robs us of the opportunity to work through the negative ones. It denies us the chance to feel what we need to feel in the moment to find better coping mechanisms and ways to move on. Internalising these feelings can be damaging to the point that it manifests physically and mentally.

It may cause psychological and physical distress. The more you ignore, avoid or dismiss your negative feelings or emotions, the more they grow. Plus, you might encounter triggers that will increase the levels without even realising that that is happening. The results could go from erratic sleep patterns and irritability to finding yourself needing to mask your feelings with any substance of choice. And, if you’re an overthinker, like me, you’d know that this isn’t far-fetched. I am, after all, speaking from a lived experience.

I cannot tell you how to navigate toxic positivity as I am still trying to figure it out. But if you’re experiencing it from someone close to you, I’ve come to realise that it is important to address it. You can tell them that they’re invalidating and dismissing your real emotions, or you can remove yourself from the conversation until such a time you’re ready to discuss it further.

If you’re the one typically dishing out or casually demanding “positive vibes” from others or yourself through your thoughts, ask yourself this; is this not toxic positivity?



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Tell us: Do you think too much positivity can be harmful? Why or why not?