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Team Intellect

Good vibes only: How to nip toxic positivity in the bud

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Table of Content

Table of Contents

“It could be worse.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“You should be grateful.”

What do these statements have in common? They exemplify toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is the belief that one should maintain a positive mindset regardless of how dire a situation is. Although it might seem like good advice, this relentless positivity can be unhelpful because it denies the validity of other human emotions. While these statements may be well-intentioned, they can backfire when offered to others.

Toxic positivity can also manifest in self-talk. For instance, when you tell yourself to “chin up and soldier on,” you might be invalidating or masking difficult emotions, which can intensify fear and anxiety. Repressing emotions not only affects your mental wellbeing but can also impact your physical health.

When suppressed emotions inevitably surface, you may feel bad about not maintaining a positive outlook. This can lead to unhelpful comparisons: If others can stay positive, why can’t I? This mindset traps us in a vicious cycle, denying us the opportunity to understand our emotions better and grow as individuals.

Examples of toxic positivity

Have you or someone you know fallen into the toxic positivity trap? Here are some signs to look out for: 

  • Brushing off problems rather than facing them
  • Hiding your feelings behind feel-good quotes
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed for experiencing negative emotions

If these behaviours sound familiar, you’re not alone. Confronting unpleasant emotions is challenging, and it’s often easier to resort to toxic positivity. Plus, society reinforces this by often dismissing feelings like sadness as signs of weakness. We sometimes do this to others by:

  • Minimising their feelings because they make you uncomfortable 
  • Telling someone to cheer up when they share their troubles
  • Shaming others when they appear to be in a bad mood 

These behaviours occur more often than we’d like to admit, which is why we have unflattering labels like “Debbie Downer” and “Negative Nancy.” But what if we took a different perspective?

How to avoid toxic positivity at work

The antidote to toxic positivity is self-compassiona non-critical attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures. Self-compassion has three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

1. Self-kindness

When we are kind to ourselves, we see ourselves as worthy no matter what, even when we fall short of our own expectations. Of course, this is easier said than done, which is why we tend to be kinder to others than to ourselves.

Imagine you are a friend struggling—what would you do or say, and how would you say it? The next time you find yourself defaulting to toxic positivity, pause, call on this empathic voice in your self-talk. While at that, you can try:

Instead of…Try saying…
Replacing “should,” “must,” and “ought to” with “prefer.”
This is an important meeting. I must not mess it up.

I would prefer to not make mistakes, but it’s okay if I do. 

Validate your feelings
I’ve presented this report so many times. I should not be feeling stressed. It’s natural to feel stressed. This is a stressful situation.

Check in with yourself 
I just need to grit my teeth and power through it.What do I need to feel better in this moment?

Likewise, when you’re on the verge of blurting out “cheer up!” to someone who is struggling, you might say:

  • This must be really hard for you. 
  • I may not know the right things to say, but I’m here to listen. 
  • How can I help?

2. Common humanity

During times of overwhelm, it’s easy to believe that our negative reactions define us. We might even resort to labelling or name-calling:

  • If I felt anxious in a social situation, it must mean I’m socially awkward. 
  • If I get frustrated with my children, it must mean I’m a bad parent. 
  • If I avoided a difficult conversation, it must mean I’m a coward. 

In these moments, it helps to focus on our common humanity and remember that no one is exempt from experiences of anxiety, frustration, and avoidance. Those unpleasant emotions you are feeling right now? They are embedded into the broader human experience.

Now, there is a major difference between saying, “Everybody goes through tough times. Why can’t you cope like others?”—this is the voice of toxic positivity—and “This is a universal experience. You are not alone.” By reminding yourself that unpleasant emotions are par for the course, you can start to accept rather than deny them.

3. Mindfulness

Making room for unpleasant emotions is a good start, but how will you handle their bubbling to the surface? Mindfulness – a practice of observing your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations instead of reacting to them – can help you maintain perspective in times of distress.

Incorporating what we now know about self-kindness and common humanity, the S.A.F.E. technique achieves this in four steps: soften, allow, feel, and expand.

Step 1. Soften

Soften into your feelings by focusing on your breath. Inhale deeply, name the emotion(s), and identify where its presence is the strongest in your body. 

For example, if you had stumbled over your words during an important presentation, you might feel embarrassment and hot flashes over your face.

Step 2. Allow

Let the emotion be without resisting it. Remember, allowing this feeling does not mean you are okay with it, and making room for it does not mean it will stay permanently. Think of “embarrassment” as a temporary visitor; you’re simply acknowledging its presence.

Step 3. Feel

Experience the emotion with self-kindness. Ask yourself: What does “embarrassment” believe? Does it think that you are unworthy and that everyone is judging you?

More importantly, what does “embarassment” need right now? Is it reassurance from others or self-acceptance? Silently or out loud, address this need with an affirmation like, “May I find peace with my performance earlier.”

Step 4. Expand

Lastly, expand your awareness by reminding yourself that public speaking is widely known to be nerve-racking, and most people in your situation struggle with embarrassment.

Extend the same compassion you just gave yourself to your colleagues who may be encountering similar difficulties. When reassuring yourself, you may add the phrase “and so are other people” at the end. For example, “I’m doing the best I can and so are other people.”

During this process, physical touch can be particularly powerful, introducing a sense of security and helping with self-soothing. Some techniques include:

  • Face: Placing a hand on your cheek or holding your face in your hands 
  • Chest: Placing a hand (or both) on your heart, gently stroking your chest, or placing one hand around your fist and over your heart 
  • Abdomen: Placing a hand on your abdomen or both hands on your belly 
  • Arms: Gently stroking your arms, crossing your arms and giving yourself a gentle squeeze, or holding one hand in another 

Let Intellect help you

Understandably, we may forget these steps and need support to stay on track when the going gets tough. That’s where Intellect’s self-care app comes in, offering numerous interactive interventions based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. With resources like the Developing Self-Compassion Learning Path, you’ll have valuable tools right in your pocket to guide you through challenging times.

If you find yourself being overly self-critical due to deeply seated beliefs formed in childhood or adolescence, it might be time to seek additional support. Consider coaching, counseling, or even psychotherapy. Intellect provides affordable sessions with a diverse panel of mental health professionals, ensuring you can easily find someone who is culturally attuned and based in your country.

Get in touch with Intellect today and start your journey towards better self-compassion and mental health.

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