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Gratitude and… gaslighting? How to handle ‘toxic positivity’

4 minute read

In offering simple solutions to complex mental health problems, ‘toxic positivity’ poses a real threat to our wellbeing. Vhi Health Coach Dr Mou Sultana examines this modern phenomenon and sidesteps “good vibes only” platitudes to help you deal with difficult emotions.

Hope. Optimism. Enthusiasm. Gratitude. Confidence. All feelings that can be connected to ‘positive thinking’, where you make a concerted effort to take on difficult or challenging situations with a better outlook and open mind. Sounds good, right?

The problem starts when we consider how unrealistic it is to expect humans – complex creatures that we are – to generate “positive vibes” for most of our waking hours. Ignoring imminent danger, neglecting your duties, ignoring your body’s signals to discomfort, avoiding unpleasant situations? That is not true positive thinking – even if it is often promoted as such. And, at a certain point, this becomes counterproductive.

Defining ‘toxic positivity’

Toxic positivity is an overgeneralisation of happiness and optimism across your life. It’s an internal or external push to “get on with it”, ignoring emotions that don’t fit the ideals of “positivity”. If you find yourself running away from anything unpleasant, you have taken positive thinking to an excessive level. If you are feeling pressured to project happiness, smile, co-operate and hide your discomfort, positive thinking has become idealised. This is not healthy.

Constantly being bombarded with messages like “think positive!” or “no negativity please!” sets a standard in our minds. We internalise all of this and begin to judge ourselves. Then, when we fail to keep smiling or ward off all our worries, shame can set in. We worry about making other people uncomfortable and paint ourselves as a “negative person” in – false – comparison to others. When, in fact, you are just being human, with feelings and emotions that are meant to hurt at times.

A modern concern

Social media doesn’t always help matters. Online platforms have given rise to “negativity police” who look to shut others down at any talk of pain, grief, loss, misery. Instead, our feeds are full of positive quotes and memes. Even seemingly helpful content promoting positive mental health can cause problems without the right expertise. New trends and buzzwords risk trivialising real mental health issues. For instance, the destructive practices of toxic positivity can often be mislabelled as practicing ‘gratitude’.

True gratitude means being thankful for what you have, while acknowledging when things go wrong. For instance, you might learn that a friend has lied to you and feel betrayed. If you are practicing gratitude, you would pay attention to these emotions, rather than pushing them aside. Then you focus on what you do have: a piece of knowledge about your friend (albeit uncomfortable) that you didn’t know before. It may help you protect yourself from further hurt. You remind yourself of the good things that you may take for granted – other friends, family members, a safe home. On the other hand, imagine you keep telling yourself ‘think positive, not a big deal, get over it’? All your energy is going into gaslighting yourself, feeding feelings of betrayal which can fester and lead to later outbursts.

The health & wellbeing risks

Toxic positivity serves to put people dealing with anxiety or depression under further pressure. They begin to think that feeling positive should be a natural, easy thing to do. It invalidates their pain and makes them judge themselves harshly – the fact that they can’t do seemingly simple things like ‘think positive’ makes them think that there must be something deeply wrong with them.

Putting too much positive spin on situations is essentially a form of gaslighting yourself. The danger is that you start living in a bubble where nothing negative is allowed. If this continues, you could begin to lose touch with reality. Even lose touch with friends and family, who you now label as too “negative”. Your ability to deal with difficult emotions will suffer, as well as your ability to work constructively on yourself.

How to protect yourself

Recognising the signs of toxic positivity is a good place to start. Remember: genuine positivity does not mean the absence of negativity. It means acknowledging your discomfort and then being hopeful for growth, change and eventual flourishing.

Of course, accepting and handling negative emotions is easier said than done. It can be achieved by reframing your thoughts in a constructive, realistic way. Certain meditation practices can help.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

If you are faced with a feeling of ‘I can’t do this, it’s too difficult’, validate those feelings and then go about putting a plan in place to get yourself through it. Don’t quite have the skills for a task? That’s ok. Focus on how you have learnt new skills before. Know that you are a quick learner, with the time and resources to improve. Always be mindful to note your limitations and recognise that everyone has them. You are not being “negative” or showing “weakness”; you are simply being human. In this way, you can learn to appreciate yourself for who you truly are: a self-aware, responsible person who is doing their best.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Mou Sultuna

Dr Mou Sultana

Vhi Health Coach

Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist