Sometimes life is difficult, and pretending you’re not hurting won’t help. Psychologist Jacqui Maguire says learning to work through hardship and sadness is an important life skill.
“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared. Uh-uh! A forest! A big dark forest. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it! Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!”
How many of you have read Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt? In my household of little people, Rosen’s poetic words can still be heard long after the back cover has been closed. My hope is that long after this article is read and discarded, the notion of working “through” unpleasant emotions stays with you. When we are able to turn towards challenging emotions, rather than away from them, we are able to fully experience the wonders of life.
Being aware of your emotions, accepting them without judgement and effectively managing intense and unhelpful emotions is known as “emotion regulation” and it’s one of the most important skills needed for good mental health and wellbeing. When we can cope with experiencing all kinds of emotions, both positive and negative, it’s easier to navigate life’s challenges and stresses. We are also able to fully benefit from positive experiences, and authentically connect with people around us.
Unfortunately, the message that both positive and negative emotions are important to our wellbeing seems to have been lost for many. Instead, there seems to be a growing trend for people to try to ditch all experience of negative emotions, replacing them with an avalanche of positive self-statements and “good vibes only”. You only have to scroll through your social media feed to see the evidence of this. Let’s be clear, positivity in itself isn’t bad, but over-saturation of positive emotions can be harmful.
Psychologists call it “toxic positivity”, an unhealthy habit of pretending negative emotions don’t happen, or only being willing to look at the good side of any situation, without recognising the complexities of emotion that accompany our experiences. The difficulty with toxic positivity is that life isn’t always wine and roses. Hardship, pain, sadness, grief and disappointment are all important parts of the human experience, and we need to be able to feel comfortable managing these emotions.
How to spot toxic positivity
Some signs to watch out for, both in your own feelings and others’ reactions:
- In the midst of grief, being told: “Everything happens for a reason.” Someone may believe this sentiment, but it enables them to avoid your pain.
- Feeling guilty about not being happy.
- When you’re managing something really tough and people say: “Chin up, look on the bright side.” They might be trying to be supportive, but it’s likely to prevent you from opening up and talking any further.
- Avoiding challenging emotions, either experiencing them or memories of sad times.
- If you say you are experiencing a negative emotion, such as frustration, disappointment or sadness, and you get told happiness is a choice. This suggests that if you’re not happy, it’s your own fault.
- Purposefully avoiding issues that may spark negative emotions.
Finding your way through it
Most people are well-meaning and don’t set out to hurt others, but it is important to be aware of the impact of toxic positivity. It can mean people don’t get the support they need when they are going through tough times, as both the sufferer and the supporter may try to avoid any unpleasant emotions. The “sunny side up” rhetoric can be particularly damaging during times of intense distress, such as when experiencing illness, job loss, relationship breakdown or financial hardship.
If you recognise signs of toxic positivity in yourself, there are strategies that can help you deal with your emotions in a more helpful way:
- Be aware of how you feel by checking in with yourself. Set a timer on your phone two or three times a day, and note how you are feeling and what you are thinking. The emotion chart above may help.
- Try to be realistic. When you are facing challenging times, remind yourself that it’s normal to experience unpleasant emotions.
- Practise helpful emotion regulation strategies, such as journal writing or talking with a supportive friend, family member or someone who’s not involved.
- If you are supporting someone else, focus on listening more than talking. Be present and acknowledge their situation and emotion. When people are distressed, they often don’t need solutions, they need to feel heard and cared for. Phrases like “I am here for you” and “Gosh that sounds tough” are more helpful than “You’ll be fine, just think positive.”
- Be mindful of how much social media content you are consuming. If your mood worsens after you’ve been scrolling, it’s a signal that you may benefit from less exposure.
Now more than ever, as the world grapples with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19, we need to tread gently as we collectively experience complex emotions. And if nothing else, I hope you remember “the best way is always through it”.
Jacqui Maguire is a registered clinical psychologist. She is the founder of the Mind Brew podcast and has written a children’s book, When the Wind Blew, to help children cope with change, jacquimaguire.co.nz.