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Why you don't always need to stay happy and hopeful through difficult times

The challenges of the last two years have left a sizeable impact on our mental health. But has it also led to a surge in the culture of toxic positivity?

Being vulnerable in safe spaces can build authentic relationships, allow us to see things from another point of view and even be therapeutic
Being vulnerable in safe spaces can build authentic relationships, allow us to see things from another point of view and even be therapeutic (Priscilla Du Preez (Unsplash))

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After his engagement was called off, thirty-two-year-old Anand Bose (name changed), who has been suffering from clinical depression, asked his therapist, "Do you think I need to go on a vacation somewhere with my friends? Maybe that will help me get over this." Though deeply hurt by the incident, Bose feels that taking some "time-off" and a "change of environment" will benefit him.

We've all encountered these moments where our so-called negative feelings—sadness, anger, hurt—have been denied or trivialised. Take, for instance, that friend or family member who reacts to your discomfort about something by telling you that it is over now and you need to forget about it. Or that person who tells a grieving person at a funeral not to cry about the deceased because they are in a better place now. While their intentions may be well-meant, such phrases can cause alienation, distress and disconnect. Of course, this mindset, unfortunately, has always been around but has been amplified recently, thanks to social media. 

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And, often, we do it to ourselves. Let's be honest: While welcoming 2022, haven't we all had our moments of self-reflection where we've consciously or subconsciously chosen to focus on the happiest and best memories and moments of the year gone by to pave the way for the New Year? We also want to overachieve, be super happy and ultra hopeful. Everyone's social media accounts reflect their picture-perfect families, supportive relatives, colleagues, high-end jobs, successes and achievements. Everyone wants to put up a happy face and move ahead with their lives as if nothing has gone wrong or will ever go wrong. And without realising it, we're all contributing to creating a culture where we refuse to acknowledge and accept any negative emotions at all.

This is what twenty-nine-year-old Suneeti Ramanujan (name changed), who lost her job and hasn't been able to cope with her financial distress, is now trying to do. She is clinging to a "positive outlook" and is trying to send out "good vibes into the universe" to help her find a new job. She believes that her problem is how she has been sad and "carrying the negativity" of her previous experience, and probably that's hampering her job search.

However, it turns out that this is not the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation. As a 2005 Stanford study published in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology discovered--denying negative feelings was linked to higher rates of depression. The research which examined participants for 10 years further showed that avoidance, when used as a coping mechanism, was associated with both more chronic and more acute life stressors 4 years later. Lounge speaks to experts who highlight how this culture of 'toxic positivity can harm mental health, advising us on how not to fall prey to this trap.

Understanding toxic positivity

First things first, not all positivity is toxic. However, if one insists on staying positive at the cost of avoiding, denying, minimising or overlooking negative emotional states, it can become toxic quickly. The overdoing of positive emotions is a maladaptive coping mechanism; one is desperate to 'seem happy' and avoid vulnerability in any form. At a basic level, it is simply a behaviour to avoid anything even mildly 'negative', especially in conversations, believing that it will make life more positive.

Sneh Kapoor, a Delhi-based counsellor & psychotherapist, throws light on this mindset by explaining that toxic positivity is, at the base of it, a dismissive attitude to any negative emotion and an attempt to (almost forcibly) substitute it with a more "positive" emotion. She adds that while this mindset genuinely started out to help create a more positive and uplifting narrative about what seemed like hopeless situations, it is now a cause for concern. "While an optimistic outlook and a more hopeful/positive perception of events are generally considered more desirable, this "positivity" can often appear toxic when at the cost of genuine human emotions and experience," she emphasises.

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While this attitude isn't new in itself, it has increasingly become prevalent, making it a cause for concern. According to Divya Srivastava, a counselling Psychologist and the founder of Silver Lining Wellness Centre, Mumbai, this is the result of living in a world of instant gratification and social media. She points out that it aggravates our hedonistic side, where we only wish to pursue pleasure and avoid pain at all costs. "Seeing others in distress is often an uncomfortable experience. In a world where people only want to show their good side and happy days on social media, this mindset is growing in popularity."

And yes, what makes it easier is the multi-billion, new age industry filled with books, blogs and pep talks by influencers that sell us this idea, as Mumbai-based Dr Rizwana Nulwala, a psychotherapist, points out. "There are new age speakers with little mental health background but good communication skills who encourage us to think positive. Families are not encouraging children to experience negative emotions and suppressing it by asking children to constantly look on the positive side," she says.

The downside of toxic positivity

Emotions have a function, and when we deny, minimise or discount negative emotions, it becomes harmful. T oxic positivity can be downright harmful as the person at the receiving end will consistently have their experiences trivialised or dismissed, says Kapoor. In an extreme version of this, one may be at the receiving end of consistent gaslighting and end up confused about their own inner world. "From a relational perspective, a hardpressed focus on positivity does not allow one to really understand the other's perspective or approach them from a place of empathy. This paves the way for weaker relationships, poorer communication, resentment and ultimately, weaker emotional bonds," she elaborates.

Toxic positivity leads to a stronger experience of negative emotions. When we shut down our experience of not feeling good by telling ourselves (or others telling us), "This too shall pass", or "Look at the bright side," we are negating how we are truly feeling in the moment and disregarding our pain. It leads to feeling isolated. Srivastava offers an insight into the feeling of isolation, saying, "Every time one opens Instagram, they'll see happy pictures of people on vacation, getting married, having a baby, or some other milestone. Behind the picture, maybe a totally different story which that person isn't sharing - because we are living in a world where positivity is embraced and celebrated; everything else, kept out and hushed," she says.

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So yes, you shouldn't be telling a friend or loved one who is processing a breakup that, on the bright side, you should be glad you are out of it. Not only is this deeply insensitive, but it also sends out the message that there is no space to vent or hold your pain. It can also trigger other unwanted behaviours."When a person isn't able to find a safe space to share feelings, they may find comfort in substances like alcohol, cigarettes or activities like shopping to distract themselves from their pain," adds Srivastava.

Nulwala recounts an incident where a client narrated to her a traumatic experience of being abused with a smile. "This is not consistent with how s/he is feeling," she remarks. The inability to be in touch with what you are feeling doesn't give you an opportunity for problem resolution and keeps you out of touch with reality. As Nulwala says, "Negative emotions also have a function. Fear, anger, sadness help to calibrate life. We shouldn't overlook the value of these emotions." Being in the moment and responding to what comes up authentically requires a measure of self-reflection. This helps in balancing both positive and negative emotions. Saying that one should thrive at all costs can be mentally damaging and can affect the self-esteem of those perceived as not thriving.

Srivastava believes that it is important to find the right balance between acknowledging and making space for gratitude to form balanced emotional responses. "Practicing mindfulness helps. Grounded gratitude is healthier than mindless gratitude! Reflection and introspection also help," she says. "Look at what is upsetting you and work through it with friends, family, or a professional. Try to find outlets to channel your emotions, and don't keep chasing joy. Self-love and self-care look different for everyone. Honour yourself and your emotions – it's okay to feel your pain."

How to tackle toxic positivity

Dr Nivedita Challil, Founder, Arth Counselling Center, Mumbai

Correct harmful misconceptions

Holding on to beliefs such as "staying away from negative talk will keep negative things away" can contribute to more pain.

Don't believe that only 'positive' is good

When things are good, we rarely ever look inwards or think about doing better. For most of us, growth happens when we have failed or gone through a difficult patch. And isn't our empathy towards others so much more when we understand their pain better? We grow more when things are down, which is a good thing?

Recognise the power of sharing

We make sense of our world through talking about our experiences, and those conversations are precious because they cause shifts in our minds and how we see ourselves. Being vulnerable in safe spaces can build authentic relationships, allow us to see things from another point of view and even be therapeutic. Sharing can build relationships, broaden perspectives, release good hormones in our body and help with healing and recovery.

Cultivate a balanced view

Because just as birth, health, success and gains come our way, similarly, ageing and death, illness and failures will also come our way. They are two sides of the same coin, and we need to examine our expectations of only wanting one of them.

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