I recently had a counseling session with a client who told me that she had felt very depressed and lonely for almost close to 5 years. On being questioned why she had waited this long to seek help, she answered “I was trying to look at the positive side of things. To ignore my anger and hurt because I have to maintain peace”. This, according to a psychologist, is as bad as self-medication. I had a chat with a General Practitioner a few weeks ago, who told me that more than 50% of his patients have tried some form of self-medication at one time or the other in their lives. Save a few lucky times, a large percentage of those have been ineffective or worse, caused problems more severe than the original symptoms.
In psychology, there is a counterpart to this harmful self-medication. Only it isn’t a drug, but a mindset. It is called Toxic Positivity. It is a condition where we train our minds to accept that positive thinking is the only way of thinking. In looking at it as a goal to achieve, positive thinking can be a milestone that we all should include in our life path. But the problem arises when we overdo it.
•When we avoid facing negative experiences or outcomes
•When we expect only positive outcomes from our plans and decisions
•When we consciously avoid looking at the risk factors in a situation
•When we decide to be cheerful and optimistic even when the situation does not merit such a reaction
As the client, there are many of us who wish to look at the brighter side of things and ignore those negative or undesirable outcomes that are also a possibility. We forget that there is no underlying rule to a happy life that says to do away with all forms of negative emotions. Instead of looking at the textbook definition of negative emotions, let us try to understand how being overly positive can sometimes lead to undesirable outcomes.
With all the literature flying around us about how we need to focus on all that is positive and do away with the negative, especially during a pandemic, there is also the possibility of some of us deliberately eliminating negative experiences even if we are experiencing them. This means an out-of-touch with reality that can lead to a lot of imbalance in our cognition and thoughts. As we grow and mature into individuals with our own personality and perceptions of the things and people around us, we are sometimes forcibly put into situations, where we ignore certain emotions and thoughts because they are labeled as negative. Anger, fear, disappointment, worst-case-scenario prediction, and grief can be some of those. It is sometimes necessary for us to accept and experience negative emotions too to grasp what is really happening to us. Only by doing so, can we move forward with adopting our life to the challenges it throws at us.
There have been numerous instances where clients have shared an experience of abuse, anger, or hurt that has been directed towards them and still they suppress their reactions and choose to look away from the harm that it might have caused them. One such client reasoned with me saying “I chose to not do anything about the physical abuse I was facing and suppress my anger and become the bigger person”. However, in the long run, the abuse increased and led to a situation where the client was unable to be assertive about almost every other situation in life. Suppression of your emotions, even if they are labelled as negative, does not make you a bigger person. Going through your reactions and understanding how you can stand up and be yourself without having an emotional breakdown or an equivalent negative retaliation is what will make you a bigger person.So, how do we ensure to not fall into this Toxic Positivity Loop? Or does it go on forever?
1. Understand that both positive and negative emotions are what constitutes our thinking and cognition.
2. There is no absolute virtue in positive thoughts and no absolute harm in negative thoughts. It is a balance of both that will help us fight out the worst and make the best of situations.
3. Identify those situations that you have control over and those that you do not.