Toxic positivity: The risks of always looking on the bright side


If you constantly push away negative thoughts and feelings, you’re likely to only make things even harder for yourself. — dpa

Having a bad day? Feeling down, depressed or negative?

People may tell you to cheer up and focus on the positive, or look on the bright side.

There’s even a hashtag for this: #goodvibesonly.

That’s toxic positivity, say some experts.

It’s okay to feel down, depressed and negative.

In fact, overly-positive thinking does us more harm than good.

”Most people have a good knowledge of positive emotions and how to deal with them,” says Dorothee Salchow, a coach in Hamburg and a lecturer at Germany’s Society for Positive Psychology (DGPP).

She lists the 10 positive emotions as follows:

  • Pleasure
  • Inspiration
  • Joy
  • Serenity
  • Awe
  • Hope and confidence
  • Pride
  • Interest in the world
  • Gratitude
  • Love and affection.

But she notes that negative feelings are often neglected, yet “it’s important to allow the whole range of feelings”.

Salchow likes to use an image to illustrate this: “If you suppress your negative feelings, then they head down into the basement and do strength training there.

"At some point, they come back stronger.”

Another very vivid comparison: suppressed negative feelings are like a ball that you push under water – at one point, it explodes.

If you keep trying to suppress the negative feelings, you run the risk of creating a vicious circle in which they become stronger and stronger.

University of Bamberg Personality Psychology and Psychological Diagnostics chairwoman Professor Astrid Schütz has a similar view.

Experts also refer to the rebound or "white bear" effect in connection with toxic positivity.

”If you tell someone not to think about a pink elephant, he or she won’t think about anything else,” she explains.

“It’s the same with negative emotions.”

What’s more, the constant suppression also means constant stress.

”Cognitively, you’re totally energised. In extreme cases, you can manoeuvre yourself into burnout.”

Unpleasant feelings are also very important for another reason: “Negativity is simply part of it.

"We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the positive so much if there wasn’t a contrast to the negative,” explains Prof Schütz.

The good of negative emotions

But negative emotions are more than just a contrast to the beautiful: ”They give us important clues that something is wrong.”

Throughout the history of evolution, emotions such as fear, anger, sadness and shame have protected humans as important cues, says Salchow.

Shame protects us from social exclusion, fear from danger.

Anger indicates an injustice or shows that a high value has been violated and that you should stand up for yourself.

Reason enough to engage with negative feelings – and actually, we can’t help it.

”Our brain is constantly looking for something that is not okay or even dangerous. This used to ensure people’s survival.”

Today, we no longer actually need this protection.

But on the one hand, negative emotions are still useful: they provide important clues that something important is at stake.

We get angry with our partner, for example, because we have a vested interest in making our relationship work.

We should therefore also pay attention to a bad feeling.

But not too much, because of the so-called negativity bias, where we perceive negative emotions much more strongly, as Salchow explains.

This means: “For us to be emotionally balanced, we need a ratio of three to one: three positive emotions outweigh one negative emotion,” she says.

Getting advice from social media? Don’t.

It’s a completely different story on Instagram and the like: Happy people, great experiences, perfect homes – most people only show the best of themselves on social networks.

But these are just snippets, which we sometimes tend to forget.

”Social media acts as an amplifier for phenomena such as toxic positivity,” says Prof Schütz.

They ensure that phrases like #goodvibesonly spread further and faster.

This makes it all the more important to ensure a good balance of negative and positive feelings offline.

But how can this be achieved?

Even if the term sounds a bit hackneyed: Mindfulness is helpful to be able to allow all feelings.

“Be in the moment, notice: What is it like right now?” explains Prof Schütz, who also develops tests and training courses on emotional intelligence.

”Accept your feelings, even the negative ones, but don’t brood or dwell on bad moments.

"And always work towards positive moments.”

And yes, there’s a hashtag for that too: #allfeelingsarewelcome. – By Elena Zelle/dpa

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Toxic positivity , emotions , mental health


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