Are you telling yourself everything will be fine and focusing only on happy or positive emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Then you probably need to read this …
We’ve all seen it. Small children ‘throwing tantrums’ in the middle of the grocery store, seemingly because they’ve been told ‘no’. But what are they really doing? They’re trying to be seen. As young children our behaviour is predominantly driven by emotion, because our frontal lobes (responsible for executive functioning such as problem solving and forecasting consequences) are not yet developed.
Our emotions are our prime vessels of communication. They communicate our values, who we are and guide the course of action we ultimately take.
What is Toxic Positivity
“Toxic positivity” is a relatively new phrase but has been around much longer. Society values positivity strongly – we are often told to “leave our emotions at the door” when we go to work, we are told to “get on with it” and “be positive”. It has become systemic and emotions have become segregated into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The consequence of this is undermining the importance of emotional fragility in being ‘seen’ and we can feel invisible.
Our emotions tell our stories. By inhibiting emotional expression, we inherently choose which emotions are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’.
Yet without emotions we wouldn’t have values, be able to fight an injustice, and who we are gets lost. Emotions help us communicate with ourselves, so without them, how do we communicate with others? What kind of relationships do we have? How do we thrive?
When we push aside difficult emotions in order to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop deep skills to help us deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
– Susan David.
So what happens when our emotions are invalidated? We aren’t ‘seen’.
We invalidate the emotions of others through minimizing statements like “it’s not that bad”; gender stereotyping of emotions such as “big boys don’t cry”; to comparing, ie “people have it way worse than you”.
When we do this to others, we are essentially communicating to them that their subjective emotional experience is insignificant, unreasonable or unacceptable. They sound pleasant enough, but are totally baseless and can be applied to endless situations and almost any person.
Conversely, validating others’ emotions does not mean you necessarily agree with them or that you agree their emotional response is warranted. Rather, validation communicates that you understand how they are feeling, aren’t attempting to change the way they’re feeling, or shaming them for the way they’re feeling.
When we feel ‘seen’ we feel heard and understood by others, which can significantly reduce the intensity of the emotion. By feeling validated we feel increasingly important to those around us and we can feel more connected through building a stronger relationship.
Over time, the “good vibes only” attitude has harmful effects. Most commonly, shame can be associated with negativity. Those who don’t always have a positive outlook on a situation can be made to feel their opinion will cause turmoil and ruin the social dynamic. In the long term, this shame can turn into guilt making the feeling of negativity personal.
In relationships, people are less authentic when they feel others aren’t receptive to real emotions. This leads to withholding of information and limited time with certain individuals.
Toxic Positivity and COVID-19
Toxic positivity is an especially important concept in the midst of the collective trauma we are all facing. COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted everyone to varying degrees within our context and own emotional experiences.
The pandemic has affected the mental health of Australians in a major way. Several studies have identified a decrease in mental health of Australians secondary to the social, occupational and financial disruptions of COVID-19.
At the beginning of the pandemic many experts predicted those with pre-existing mental health disorders would be most at risk. However, follow up studies have found even greater increases in psychological distress in those without a history of mental illness.
Overall trends of psychological distress have decreased over the course of the pandemic. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in November 2020 and March 2021, that less Australians reported feelings that had an adverse impact on psychological wellbeing than in August 2020.
However, roughly 20% still reported very high levels of psychological distress. Despite this decrease in the average level of psychological distress, among young people aged 18-44 it remains higher than it was in February 2017.
Reports have found that levels of mental distress were correlated to financial stress over the course of the pandemic. Mental distress in November 2020 (24%) was higher than April 2020 (22%) and over double the reported levels of distress in Australia prior to COVID-19.
Social media posts advising we need to embrace the experience by spending more time with our families, explore our own backyards, learn a new skill, get fit or pick up a new hobby? That’s toxic positivity. Denial of the traumatic nature of the pandemic is seen when people only promote the positive experiences of lockdown. It de-legitimises the legitimate worries people have about their health, the health of their friends and family, and meeting obligations like putting a roof over their head in a time of financial insecurity, when employment is threatened.
Evidently, there is nothing negative about being grateful and appreciative during difficult times, but you can do so while also acknowledging your uneasiness.
There is no doubt throughout this pandemic we have all had feelings of fear, sadness, grief and uncertainty for our future. The worst thing we can do to our mental health is to perpetuate the systemic toxic positivity. When we really embrace the paradox of our emotional states we can understand why we feel the way we feel, to reveal what we value and care about.
Putting a Stop to Toxic Positivity
Knowing that pushing positivity is more harmful than helpful, what’s a better approach to take?
1 – Permit yourself and others to have positive and negative emotions.
Firstly, remind yourself that you will likely have multiple and opposing feelings and perspectives about unsettling and uncertain situations. Acknowledge both the positive and negative – be pragmatic.
It’s important to practise gratitude for what we do have, but it’s just as important to be honest and express our worries and fears.
2 – Don’t seek to approve or disapprove others realities.
Everyone’s experiences are their own and are subjective. Just because someone may have it ‘worse off’ doesn’t lessen his or her emotional distress or their reality. Take the time to validate the way they feel – despite whether you agree with it or not.
3 – Ditch the “its fine, I’m fine”.
In a situation where it’s not natural to be ‘fine’, you’re essentially saying there isn’t a problem to be addressed. Shutting out any possibility for further reflection is harmful and counterproductive.
While nice sounding, toxic positivity is just empty platitudes. Connect with yourself, how you’re feeling, and acknowledge the differences in subjective experiences. It’s OK not to be OK right now.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
To make an appointment with Tara Pisano, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Mental health services in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health-services/mental-health-services-in-australia
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020). Labour force commentary: June 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/7d12b0f6763c78caca257061001cc588/ a8e6e58c3550090eca2582ce00152250!OpenDocument\
- David, S. (2017). Emotional Agility. Penguin UK.
- Melbourne Institute. (2020). Coping with COVID-19: rethinking Australia, Chapter 4: Heightened Mental Distress: Can Addressing Financial Stress Help?
- Wong, B. (2020). What is toxic positivity? Why it’s OK to not be OK right now. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-toxic-positivity-coronavirus_l_5f04bca0c5b67a80bbff7cd3