The Negative of Positivity
Posted on 28th February 2022 at 22:15
Positivity, or the psychology of positive thinking, is when we choose and nurture a tendency towards positive or optimistic thinking and engage in positive behaviours. The ‘glass half full’ view of life is a familiar framing of the concept as is Monty Python’s ‘always look on the bright side of life.’ Optimism, as a personality trait, is believed to have positive effects on health and well being and to be particularly effective in managing stress, therefore contributing to better health. Optimism is often bolstered by a co-existing sense of humour or the ability to use humour to lighten tension. If you don’t have optimism as a personality trait, you can train yourself to be more optimistic and thereby experience the benefits. This training is largely based around recognising the negative ways we speak to ourselves (cognitive bias) in our thoughts and reframing those that are based around internalised negative perceptions or misconceptions. It is central therefore to practices such as Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Positive thinking shouldn't mean that you ignore unpleasant situations and certainly should not mean you ignore unpleasant emotions. Rather, you approach unpleasant situations in a more productive way and handle unpleasant emotions in a more compassionate way.
Positivity becomes negative, or ‘toxic’ when there is a forced optimism imposed across all situations such that human emotional experience is denied, minimized and invalidated. Forcing a positive outlook silences the expression of struggle and can make someone feel shame for experiencing it. Positivity can also become toxic when it is used in the service of a greater agenda such as sales, marketing, promoting productivity and so on. The public needs to be cautious about their positivity resources and where they choose to share feelings. Intentions may be good but can backfire in the absence of sufficient self awareness, information and training. When our angry feelings are not acknowledged they get repressed, buried deep inside our body only to later manifest in anxiety, depression and physical illness.
Many people don’t realise when they are employing toxic positivity. Phrases like “don’t think about it, stay positive” serve to dismiss and repress feelings. A genuinely positive approach uses phrases like “that sounds difficult, would you like talk about it/ talk to someone about it?”. The frequently used, motivationally intended statement “if I can do it, you can” does not acknowledge that people’s situations and abilities differ. Suffering and struggle are part of life and avoiding them enhances the experience. A realistic approach starts with an acknowledgement of this: “Things are tough right now but I know this will pass and I have learned a lot from the experience.” From a psychoanalytic perspective, there is something super egoish (you must, you should) about ‘always looking on the bright side’ and that you are a failure and should be ashamed if you don’t. [1,2]
It is fair to say that negativity is not easily tolerated within a capitalistic culture (see related blog here). The promotion of success upholds a consumer culture which by association, promises pleasure and fulfilment. The focus on being successful makes a lucrative business of the wellness and self improvement industry which was estimated to grow to $13.2 billion by 2022. Everyone is getting in on it and because it is individual focused, you are responsible if you are not successful or happy. It cultivates and promotes narcissism where the self does not need the Other. This threatens the social connect and is therefore isolating for the individual. 
Freud in his 1930 paper Civilization and its Discontents  outlines a comprehensive theory of happiness which I speak about in ‘What Concept of Normal.’ In the clinic room with our clients, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists constantly examine the same conflicts between socially dictated pictures of contentment that keep us as consumers and the very specific desires of the individual. We are very much in the service of alleviating suffering through recognition and expression and are careful not to collude with the promise of happiness. We avoid the splitting of positive and negative, of good and bad and other reductionistic tendencies. The focus is on embracing being real and not avoiding reality, or in the words of D.W. Winnicott , to move from “mere projection” to a more realistic picture of our interpersonal experience and of the world.
If you are feeling confused or disillusioned by culturally and socially imposed views and your own individual needs, get in touch here for help and support.
1.Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes https://thepsychologygroup.com/toxic-positivity/
3. Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and its Discontents. Standard Edition 21. London: Hogarth Press
4. Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality London: Routledge.
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