In the grip of this pandemic, we are all trying to focus on the positive, even when we are feeling emotionally drained. But is this the right thing to do? Suppressing our real feelings can be detrimental to our wellbeing, as Lynn Enright found out …
“But, you know, it could be worse.” In 2021, that little disclaimer has become a refrain. In 2021, everything is bad but, you know, it could be worse. When someone tells you that things are going quite awfully, when they mention the loneliness they’re experiencing or the stress of home-schooling or the gnawing worries they have about money, they suffix it with that little phrase. Or something similar, something like: “But I know I’m lucky” or “At least this will all be over soon”. They search for something positive to say.
Sometimes, in 2021, it feels almost overwhelming to admit how bad we are feeling. Or, if we do admit our negative feelings to a friend or family member, they can struggle with hearing about that reality. They want to cheer us up; they want to say, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this” or “Come on, stay positive, I believe in you.”
It’s an understandable impulse to focus on the positive. Trying to be positive or to look on the bright side is an outlook that has been around since Aristotle and continues to this day: on Instagram there are 4.2 million posts tagged with #positivevibesonly. Admitting negative feelings, to ourselves and to others, can be scary – and hearing about them can be troubling, too.
However, if we insist on focusing only or excessively on the positive, we might be engaging in what has come to be known as “toxic positivity”. Toxic positivity is the term experts use when we view normal negative emotions, like sadness, anxiety or disappointment, as something to fear or avoid.
It’s toxic because it’s bad for us, explains Joe Heffernan, a counsellor specialising in treating trauma. “Toxic positivity can be a roundabout way of saying ‘you shouldn’t be feeling that, you should be feeling this’,” he says. “Instead of being helpful it can make a person feel guilty or ashamed for feeling sad or down in the first place.”
Guilt and shame are obviously negative emotions so rather than achieving a positive outcome, the individual who focuses exclusively on thinking positively can end up feeling worse than before. Previously, they were just sad; now they are sad, guilty and ashamed.
In his book The Power of Negative Thinking, the psychology writer Oliver Burkeman outlines how denying our authentic feelings can actually be detrimental to our wellbeing. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief take the longest to recover from their loss, he writes. Burkeman looks to the Stoics and to Buddhism for lessons in how to accept negative emotions, pointing out that positive thinking always leans to the future, which might mean that we ignore the present. By focusing on some supposedly better future, we might miss messages or lessons that could make themselves clear to us in the present. In those instances, we might be, even subconsciously, using toxic positivity as an avoidance tactic.
Toxic positivity is also exhausting, points out Majella Kennedy, a counsellor working with children and adults in Co Tipperary. “You’re using all your energy to conceal how you’re feeling,” she says. “But eventually those feelings, and more, will come out – suppressing our feelings leads to depression or anger or both.”
“It’s an understandable impulse to focus on the positive.”
Kennedy thinks that this urge to promote positive thinking in ourselves and in others can, in many cases, be traced back to our childhoods, when we learn our behaviour. “If a child comes to a parent upset, often a parent will say ‘You’ll be fine, it will be OK’. Or if the child is angry, the parent doesn’t validate that: They’d rather stop the child crying or causing a scene.”
One friend tells me that she and her mother are currently caught in a loop of toxic positivity. “If she complains to me, I tell her that things could be worse, which I know means that I’m denying her true feelings.” It’s a destructive pattern that they have created together but at this point in the pandemic, when they are both tired and sad and even scared, it feels too daunting to change it. It feels too daunting to actually listen to each other.
Many of us feel emotionally drained right now, like we have little more to give. A recent Irish study of people aged 60 and over found that more than one in five are currently depressed, which is double the pre-pandemic level. Meanwhile, a US study focusing on parents found that 61 per cent of parents of five-to seven-year-olds agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic. So many of us are struggling in this third lockdown; so many of us are feeling negative emotions. Those are negative emotions that have arisen because of a global disaster – they are rational and valid feelings, and those who experience them need to be reassured of that.
“When a person is suffering, they are suffering at this moment in time,” says Heffernan. “They don’t need to hear that in 2022 things will be OK.” We need to be hopeful, he says, “but we don’t need to be exuberantly optimistic: Rather than an ultra-optimistic response, we need to acknowledge and respect where the person is at.”
So how does he suggest we support a friend or family member who is struggling?
“If a person is telling you they feel bad about something, sometimes it’s best to say, ‘That must be really tough.’ The best thing you can do is acknowledge that the other person is suffering. Validate them. Make it very clear that you will listen to what the person has to say. Don’t try and avoid the feeling; acknowledge that there are times in life when things are very hard. Suspend your judgement and listen attentively. Be mindful of your language, think about what you’re going to say and whether it will be helpful or unhelpful.” He advises asking your friend or family member, ‘How can I support you?’ That question actually empowers the person you’re trying to help.
For most people, almost every aspect of life is less enjoyable than it was a year ago. It’s tempting to deny that reality by focusing on the future, which will surely be better, but perhaps the most compassionate thing we can do is acknowledge what we have lost. It’s normal to feel grief in 2021 – and that grief can sit alongside hope, gratitude and optimism. All our feelings, positive or negative, are valid.
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