Known as toxic positivity, a “good vibes only” attitude can stop us embracing our negative side but there are some crucial benefits to (sometimes) feeling blue
Positivity anchors itself in everything we do and feel. Adopting a positive outlook on life is the key to unlocking feelings of gratitude, happiness and joy. With that being said, life isn’t always a walk in the park. When faced with challenges, it can be easy to slip into a negative state, which is natural when life throws us an obstacle or two. Society often encourages us to “look on the bright side” when we feel low, but what if negativity isn’t always bad for us? What if, in fact, negative emotions can be a powerful tool to help us feel more positive in the long run? Below we deep dive into why toxic positivity should be avoided and how embracing the negative can cultivate a healthy and resilient mind-set in the long run.
What is toxic positivity?
There’s always that one friend or family member who manages to find a silver lining in every circumstance, especially when times are tough. For example, during the breakdown of a relationship, they attempt to reassure you by saying, “there are plenty more fish in the sea”. It may sound encouraging, but rather, it is infuriating when you feel hopeless and sad. This constant “positive” reaction to negative circumstances carries with it a sense of dismissal and is commonly referred to as “toxic positivity”.
Dr Marianne Trent, a Clinical Psychologist and author of The Grief Collective places emphasis on the difference between authentic positivity and toxic positivity when saying “true positivity is regarded as seeing the best and most compassionate intention for our own or others actions. This can then amplify feelings of acceptance and validation”. Whereas in contrast, “toxic positivity can feel more like emotional gaslighting".
The benefits of embracing the negative
Often in moments of catastrophe, we seek out support from our friends and family or even strangers to garner a sense of relief and support, so when this is jolted by toxic positivity, we can easily become irritated. Studies have shown that it is crucial to deal with negative emotions to achieve ultimate wellbeing and healing. Trying to quash negative feelings such as heartbreak, grief or anger, and letting them fester is not only bad for you mentally, but it can even impact you physically. A recent study found that those who suppressed negative emotions had a higher mortality rate, especially when grieving a relationship or person.
Hardwired for negativity
Negative emotions are crucial for humans. Our brains are hardwired to catastrophise as a safety mechanism, and negative emotions such as fear, guilt, sadness or anxiety are all needed, in part, to help build resilience and keep us safe. In tribal times, negative emotions were used as a social compass enabling tribes to gauge what was right and wrong, morally and ethically.
Of course, in the modern world, we, too, experience negative emotions, with some being able to counteract, repair and bounce back from these feelings. In contrast, others may dwell and sit in these states of negativity. Trauma expert Dr Lisa Turner, founder of CET Freedom explains how “nature, or genetics, can play a role in our tendency towards positivity. Research has shown that there may be a genetic component to optimism and pessimism. However, it is important to note that genetics is only one factor and is not the sole determinant of our outlook on life. The people and experiences we encounter throughout our lives can shape our attitudes and belief”. Turner explains, “if we are exposed to negativity and stress, it can be more difficult to maintain a positive attitude”. With this in mind, there is a clear balance between nature and nurture when it comes to dealing with negative emotions, making it essential to surround ourselves with friends and family who can help us manage the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Negative emotions – handy signals
Turner emphasises how “toxic positivity conditions us to reject negative emotions. Nothing bad happens because you have a bad feeling. Your negative emotions are a way of telling you if something isn’t a good option for you, or a particular choice or action is not ideal, or to let you know that somebody is crossing a boundary. So rather than denying what you feel, embrace all feelings”.
“Think about your emotions as simply information and feedback indicators for what you want and don’t want,” says Turner. "To deny current challenges or situations would be like setting the wrong coordinates in your Sat-NAV”, rather you have to embrace your current situation to move through into positivity.
Trent also outlines how “humans are naturally drawn away from pain because it is an aversive stimulus". Therefore, we are more likely to want to shy away from complicated emotions. However, being able to tap into and connect with these feelings is integral to our wellbeing, and if we don’t do this, it might leak out in other ways such as anxiety or lower mood.
Here’s how to feel your negative emotions healthily
1) Name your emotions
Being self-aware is not only a part of personal growth as we gain more life experience, but it can also be helpful when it comes to learning about your negative emotions. Naming and, in turn, understanding your emotions will not only help you live an authentic life but can also teach you to feel validation and control.
2) Feel your emotions
Negative emotions often fester in the body. Feelings of sadness, hurt, or rejection can cause feelings of tension and tightness. Mediation is a practical and sustainable tool to calm the mind and free the body of built-up emotional stressors. Try this 10-minute body scan when your mind is racing with negative thoughts to release the body of tension and embrace the present moment.
3) Utilise your emotions
Negative emotions can act as a signpost to a better road. For example, when you do poorly on a test or job interview, you likely feel disappointment and regret. Because of these feelings, you are accustomed to learning from your mistake to avoid feeling this way again. A recent study found that workers who continually felt negative emotions due to mistakes ultimately carved out a more successful career than those who made no mistakes at all, harnessing their negative emotions to act as a bounce-back mechanism towards success.
Ultimately, “those who remain blindly positive move into a state of denial,” says Turner. “Take a breath, check in with your true feelings and try to be mindful of any impulse or desire to invalidate or shut down any spikier feelings you might have.” After all, every emotion plays a role in the rich tapestry of life.