We all like to look on the bright side of life, especially right now, but sometimes too much positivity can be a negative.

Dr. Simon Sherry, a Dalhousie professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience says “If you’re insistent on only feeling happy or positive, you’re going to do what you need to do to escape negative feelings,” Dr. Sherry says we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. Take for example, those 18th century portraits of a wealthy man and his wife, children and maybe a dog. Looks great. What you don’t see is the smallpox scars and the outdoor plumbing. 

“We’ve been putting forward unrealistically positive representations of self for hundreds of years,” he says. And maintaining an elaborately constructed perfect self inevitably causes anxiety about concealing the gap between facade and reality. In academic terms, it’s usually called unrealistic optimism. Like sharing that picture of standing out in a snowstorm and saying how amazing and refreshing it is. It’s not. You’re cold and it’s winter and Canadians love to share their winter grief.

Toxic positivity is where people always take a consistently positive view of life and life events, to the point where anything negative is seen as bad and going against a work culture or relationships. It’s a falsely positive narrative that doesn’t really help anyone. It takes positivity to an extreme and ignores our other human emotions and that is not healthy.

Signs of Toxic Positivity

  • Hiding painful emotions
  • Experiencing guilt for being angry or negative
  • Ignoring your problems
  • Dismissing others feelings and emotions
  • Constantly reciting “positive” quotes in bad situations

Toxic positivity is harmful because it denies people the authentic support that they need. When we say to someone in a difficult situation that “don’t worry it will get better” and move on, while it may seem helpful, it can actually shame someone and be more hurtful. It can also lead to guilt and doesn’t help address the real emotions people feel.

Sometimes, toxic positivity can enter the workplace as well. Even during the pandemic and all those video conference meetings. The expectation of always being positive during video meetings is to always be smiling and upbeat. It’s unrealistic for managers and good l;eaders to expect this and over time, it can become toxic to a good work environment.

Dealing with toxic positivity

If you’re seeing it in yourself, there are some ways to better deal with this. This first thing to remember is that it’s okay to have bad days and sometimes feel sad. It makes us human. And it’s actually healthy.

  • Manage your negative emotions. Don’t deny them. They can help you make positive changes in your life too.
  • Be authentic in your feelings. Recognize when your sad or angry and be true to yourself.
  • Feeling more than one thing is okay. Maybe you just got a promotion and you’re feeling nervous but also excited, that’s okay.
  • Be connected to how you feel. If you wake up feeling sad or angry or happy, go with it. If you’re feeling at a loss from viewing social media, turn it off explore how you feel and try something else.

Sometimes toxic positivity can be subtle and hard to notice it. Keep an eye out though and you’ll notice it. Sometimes it can also be very obvious. If you catch yourself saying toxic positivity statements, instead say things like “I’m listening” or “tell me more.” That shows you’re authentic and engaged and that, is positive.

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