We hear it all the time – it’ll be OK, just think positively!
And, well… it’s kind of annoying.
We know that the answers to our problems isn’t as easy as turning a switch. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple?
And, yes, we know what people mean when they say that – it’s encouragement to look on the bright side when you’re a bit down in the dumps. But it oversimplifies the real work we need to do to have a more positive outlook. (Yes, it’s work.)
Plus, the need to constantly think positively, even in the most challenging times, can actually be toxic to our mental health.
For sure, thinking positively has its benefits. In fact, how we think about things forms the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – the approach that BEACON takes.
One of the basic ideas of CBT is that our emotional reactions are the result of how we perceive the world, not necessarily how it actually is. We are all vulnerable to cognitive distortions that make us see things more negatively than they actually are – and this is generally not helpful.
Think of these cognitive distortions like “mindreading” (when we assume what others are thinking when we actually don’t know), “catastrophizing” (when we assume the worst will happen when it’s actually unlikely), “mental filter” (when you ignore or dismiss all evidence against your negative interpretation), and many others.
A good rule of thumb: any time you find yourself getting worked up and stuck on a particular thought, it’s time to pump the breaks and check the facts. You’ll want to ask yourself what assumptions you have about this situation. Then, you’ll want to consider the evidence for and against this to come up with a more balanced and realistic view.
An over-amped up “be positive” mentality (which has been coined “Toxic Positivity”) can have negative consequences. It’s essentially a false form of positivity that communicates to the recipient that it’s not ok or valid to feel what they are feeling, and/or that it shouldn’t be expressed.
Consider an extreme example: A loved one suddenly just passed away. Imagine if you shared your sadness and got back a “Look at the bright side...”, “It could be worse...”, or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Some things don’t have a silver lining, and that’s OK.
So-called “negative” emotions – like sadness – are part of a healthy, functioning system. To deny that or invalidate it gets in the way of our ability process or digest difficult emotions and experiences so that we can eventually get over them.
We know that those positive sentiments are very likely shared with a genuine intent to help and be supportive, yet the result is often quite different. By denying objectively sad or otherwise painful circumstances, we don’t allow ourselves accept the situation, which interferes with our ability to process our grief.
Sometimes, we inadvertently engage in toxic positivity because of the difficulty and discomfort of being around painful emotions. We’re wired to want to avoid these feelings. It can be excruciating to watch our loved ones suffer and it can make us feel powerless to not be able to do anything about it.
So, be mindful of your desire to jump quickly to “fix it” mode to make the pain go away, either through some “look at the bright side” statement or a quick jump to problem solving. (This can be helpful eventually, but might not be what they need when someone shares that they are in acute distress.)
Instead, try to find a way to communicate with your loved one that what they are feeling makes sense, and you care about them. Sometimes the best thing we can hear is “You know what, that really does suck,” and then be willing to be with them and hold their hand through a difficult experience.
It oversimplifies the real work we need to do to have a more positive outlook.