BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Imagine being terribly hungry and struggling to remove the top or lid of a container that’s full of food. You know you’ll feel better after you eat, but you can’t get to the food thanks to the container’s unrelenting top.
The feeling of frustration this situation can evoke is similar to the exasperation a person who’s down in the dumps experiences when they’re trying to express their feelings to someone who repeatedly interrupts them with phrases like, “Don’t be so negative,” or “Look on the bright side.”
Healthcare experts say repeated usage of these phrases can be tantamount to saying, “Keep a lid on those feelings you’re trying to get out.”
Defining toxic positivity
While this may be irritating to the person who wants to “take the lid off” and express themselves, is it really so bad to insist on positive thinking?
Well, psychologists say it can be dangerous to make a habit out of suppressing negative feelings.
In fact, there’s a word for the tendency to do this.
According to Psychology Today, ‘toxic positivity’ is, “the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. This may take the form of denying your own emotions or someone else denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead.”
When phrases like “It could be worse” make you feel worse
But, what’s the harm in urging people to maintain a positive attitude?
Scully recounted what happened after she lost her job at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
She said, “Many well-meaning friends and family rushed to tell me that I needed to ‘stay positive’…they reminded me, ‘It could be worse.'”
Scully said this steady stream of advice to embrace positive thinking was well-meaning, but did nothing to heal her mental anguish. She said, “I felt disillusioned and anxious. No amount of positive thoughts and attempts to ‘stay upbeat’ would change that.”
In fact, she found that such attempts at positivity became harmfully toxic when they were, ‘insincere, forceful, or delegitimized real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or hardship.’
Maryland-based psychologist, Dr. Caroline Karoll agreed with Scully’s feelings on the situation.
In the same Healthline article, Dr. Karoll was quoted as saying, “The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience. It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.”
Mental health experts agree that negative feelings are not an indication of a defect or personal failure.
Instead, feelings are meant to be acknowledged and investigated to a reasonable degree.
How to deal with negative emotions
Psychology Today puts it this way, “Emotions are signals; you can mask the symptom but not the root problem. Faking your emotions won’t make them go away. Psychologist Carl Jung said it best, ‘What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.'”
What you resist not only persists, but will grow in sizeCarl Jung, Psychologist
To illustrate, when we experience a persistent toothache, the sensation is far from enjoyable. It’s pain, and it shouldn’t be ignored. The pain is our body’s way of letting us know something within us needs to be addressed.
If we ignore the toothache, this could result in an infection that worsens to the point of putting our overall health at risk.
Similarly, Psychology Today says that when negative feelings are consistently suppressed, this can lead to unhappiness, sadness, isolation, and depression.
How to help others deal with negative emotions
The Kaiser Family Foundation says that around this time last year, 32.5 percent of adults in Louisiana suffered from symptoms of anxiety and/or a depressive disorder.
Considering the significant number of locals who deal with feelings of anxiety and deep sadness, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of our beloved friends or family members approach us to share such feelings.
When this happens, how can we respond in a way that’s truly helpful and doesn’t smack of toxic positivity?
Of course, it’s always best to point people to mental health experts when they’re dealing with depression or anxiety, but as we do so, utilizing the three techniques below can also be helpful.
Listen with empathy and validate their emotions
Letting someone express themselves without interruption can in itself be healing to the sufferer. The American Medical Association says, “The feeling of being understood by another person is intrinsically therapeutic.” Simply listening to someone can give them a feeling of being understood.
Healthline adds that even when someone expresses emotions that are different from our own, it’s important to validate their experience by acknowledging that they have the right to feel whatever it is that they feel. Doctors say this can be accomplished by listening to the person and then rephrasing what they’ve said.
Gently ask questions that encourage an investigation into their feelings
While toxic positivity encourages a person to keep a lid on emotions that need to come out, healthy positivity supports an individual as they endeavor to find and address the root cause of their anguish.
Psychology Today suggests that we face our own negative emotions with curiosity and kindness by asking ourselves questions like, “Why is this emotion present?” and “What is it trying to tell me?”
A similar approach can be taken after listening to a friend express themselves. Once we’ve validated their feelings, we might gently ask them a question like, “Can you think of anything that could have triggered these feelings?”
Experts also advise that sometimes the sufferer may not have an answer to this question or may not feel capable of clearly communicating everything they’re thinking. This is why it’s key to ask questions with kindness and avoid an interrogating manner.
Encourage them to write about their feelings or use a hobby as therapy
Psychology Today says, “Psychiatrist Sue Varma recommends having a place to park your emotions, like keeping a journal or having a hobby that helps us acknowledge all our feelings. Making space for our emotions is crucial to name what we are feeling without judging how we feel.”
So, encouraging journaling or poetry as a way of sorting out feelings can be helpful. Engaging in other hobbies are usually great ways to assist in regulating emotions. If a friend loves to garden or play the piano, we might encourage them to spend some time enjoying these activities.
When we’re struggling to open a jar of food or a beverage with a cap that’s far too tight, it’s frustrating. By contrast, the moment when the seemingly unyielding cap finally gives way is pretty refreshing.
We can help friends experience a similar feeling when we encourage them to express their emotions, both positive and negative, and support their endeavors to face what they’re feeling.
Click here for more on the subject of toxic positivity.