Updated: Sep 13
Just keep your thinking positive and everything will get better, sooner or later. Right?
Maybe, and maybe not. Because there is a dark side to positivity that we should be aware of. Only then can we keep positive in a balanced and healthy way. Unrelenting positivity is often fear based and damaging to you and others. In extreme cases it can even go so far as to blame victims (including ourselves) for misfortune and squash human compassion.
While it is broadly true that positivity is a good thing and negativity is to be avoided, as always, the whole truth is much more subtle and complex. Want to make sure you learn to keep positive, avoid toxic negativity, but also avoid fear-based relentless toxic positivity, then read on.
The human experience is a blend of positive and negative and neutral – but we should be aware that these are labels we give to what is happening. The human experience is whatever it is, and sometimes we feel positive and sometimes negative about it. And everything in-between. And that’s all normal.
Quite a few positive thinking gurus (usually selling us some easy fix) would have us believe a black or white view - encouraging us to keep positive at all costs and warning us of dire consequences if we let any negative elements creep into our thoughts. The real picture is thankfully much more nuanced and ecological. After all, we don’t live in Shangri-La and nobody has announced when the next train there will leave from the local station.
Because we do live in real life, where we’re bombarded with alarming news items, everyday problems, hassles and worries, as well as daunting challenges and obstacles at times, it’s important for us to define what healthy positivity and negativity are. Because positivity has a dark side – toxic positivity. And while no one wants to be toxically negative, sometimes negativity can be healthy and desirable. If we don’t know the difference, we can place a huge burden on ourselves, constantly rejecting and suppressing core parts of ourselves and even projecting these parts on the people around us.
So unless we unpack the four boxes of healthy positivity and negativity versus unhealthy positivity and negativity, we can find ourselves stuck in reactive mode to life’s events – forcing ourselves to avoid any negativity as if it’s the plague, or on the flip side, once again feel victimized and fall into a familiar negative mindset. The anecdote of course is to know and to grow, so we can choose more powerfully. So let’s dive in…
What is toxic positivity?
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Toxic positivity is the attempt to always be in a happy optimistic state and sometimes results in the denial and invalidation of the full range of authentic human emotional experience. A toxically positive person is a living “good vibes only” meme, regardless of circumstances and difficulties they or others experience, and believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided at all costs. Toxic positivity discounts and discredits emotions that are not positive. The toxically positive person believes that any expression of negativity is a contagion they or others can catch. As such, toxic negativity is a form of denial.
“Toxic positivity is forced false positivity. That sounds innocuous somewhat on the surface, but it’s basically saying to people, ‘My comfort is more important than your reality.’ Or if you do it to yourself, if you hustle with your own emotions, if you say to yourself, ‘I’m feeling lonely, but I shouldn’t be lonely because… ‘- Dr. Susan David
Toxic positivity is the antithesis of compassion – for self or others.
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chödrön
In the end count, toxic positivity isn’t positivity at all – it’s fear wrapped up as positivity.
How can we avoid toxic positivity?
Be authentic and encourage others to be authentic about their experiences and feelings
Don’t hurry to search for the silver lining when down – lean into discomfort and negative feelings instead
Don’t offer advice to others who are going through a challenge, but rather believe in them and if appropriate offer practical help. Taking them a cooked meal is better than talking.
Cultivate healthy positivity instead!
What is healthy positivity?
Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash
Healthy positivity is all looking at what is and considering what’s possible. It is the ability to look at all of life – its ups and downs, its everyday, its triumphs and tragedies and to search for and find within it meaning and purpose. To allow the wholeness of life to inspire us and pull out the best in us. To take the fabric of reality and to use it to adorn the life we have and transform it to something good. If we can use the phrase “to badly gild” for toxic positivity, the phrase for healthy positivity would be “to alchemize.”
Healthy positivity is a combination of awareness, compassion and practice. It is the choice to respond to a negative state or negative situation with positive strategies, rather than to fear, avoid and suppress any such experience. It’s not about perfection; it’s about practice and training your brain to a more positive perspective. Humans think tens of thousands of thoughts per day, of which at least 70% are negative. We are hardwired toward negativity, so we shouldn’t be judging ourselves or others because of negativity – a more fitting response when those negative thoughts come up is compassion. And a better corrective strategy is – the practice of balance.
Here are some practices to help you balance out the negativity bias of our brains:
* Plan your day well, including planning rituals to start and end your day right.
* Adopt a gratitude practice - it has achieved a place of honor in many people’s practices because it works so well. Also consider having an end-of-day recap of three things that you did right that day because we often just criticize ourselves about all that we didn’t get done that day, so this practice is also a good balancer.
* Take care of incomplete projects [fix your fence, balance your checkbook or call in a plumber for that leak] – if your day-to-day is running smoothly, it’s easier to keep positive and your brain will have less negative material to feed off of. The truth is quite a few of the things we feel negative about can be addressed with consistent chunks of action, and then monitored so they don’t get out of hand again. If you take care of your life responsibly, there’s less to be negative about. QED.
What other tools can we use to alchemize the wholeness of our experience, especially those that can seem to threaten our wellbeing, into purposeful living? How do we think about things in a way that leads us to adopt and use positive strategies?
Rather than fighting out negative thoughts and trying to drown them out with fake positive thoughts, do an attitude switch into acceptance. It’s easier to get to positivity, if we pass through a neutral zone first, and if we have a healthy acceptance that problems are a part of life, and actually are a sign of a life that’s being lived well. The only way to never have a problem is to be firmly and permanently stuck in your comfort zone, and even there, problems will penetrate and reach us – there is no such thing as a life without problems, regardless of any flashy guru’s social media claims.
Now a trick, once you’re in a more neutral zone, go to your heart, which has wisdom of its own. Imagine breathing in and out of through the chest area– where the heart chakra is located. Focus on that for a moment, and then, continuing to breathe this way, focus on a neutral state. Don’t underestimate the power of neutral. The ability to find the neutral stance, and stay there until your heart shows you what to do next, is an invaluable skill. Once you are in the neutral zone, focus on preference rather than insistence. “I prefer not to deal with this, but I can handle it.”
After neutral, go for positive, but in a sincere, not a forced way. A way you can approach this is to focus on what is good, possible and commendable.
GOOD: words that focus you on what is good about the situation as in Tony Robbins famous “What’s good about this situation?” question. Most situations have some positive aspects – if only the opportunity to correct course and make things better.
POSSIBLE: what can you do and plan to do to handle this situation? We often focus on what can’t be done, and the avenues that are closed to us. We would do much better to turn our thoughts to what CAN be done, and then create an action plan based on that. Furthermore, sometimes a negative situation can open up possibilities and opportunities that were hidden before.
COMMENDABLE: thoughts and words that focus on the positive things you and others are doing in the situation. “I did my exercises today, even though I didn’t feel like it at first.”
Another exercise to retrain your brain is to dedicate five minutes a day to being your best, most positive self who has mastered the issue you feel negative about. Put on a timer and for five minutes imagine yourself powerfully handling whatever needs to be taken care of. Play the role to the full. I like to do this exercise when I’m walking to the store for instance. Embody the role of the “you” who has this problem handled and taken care of. Feel it as you walk.
Finally, dedicate another five minutes daily to plan out the actions steps that will solve the issue, and hopefully also dissolve the root of the problem.
And if you want to achieve your goals, be sure to steer clear of sources of unhealthy negativity!
What is toxic negativity?
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
You can just see it in the image above – in another moment all those happy smiles will be wiped out when they are blindsided by the blow of negativity.
Important note: there are clinical conditions (such as clinical depression) that may have traits in common with toxic negativity. If you or anyone you know are clinically depressed, or require the attention of a therapist, please contact a trained professional at once. This article is not referring to those who need professional help.
Toxic negativity is when dwelling on negatives and draining energy from others becomes one of the only ways someone can feel validated in life. There is no win-win in a toxically negative person’s vocabulary, let alone the concept of synergy. Every situation for them is a win-lose proposition, and the way they win is though their negativity and to bring anyone around them down. If they can convince others how truly terrible the situation is, then they win. At the end of the encounter, they feel better and others feel drained of energy. So yes, toxic negativity can be contagious. It’s different from people who are going through challenges in life and may become more subdued or “negative” but are open to solutions and help – the toxically negative person’s goal is different – they do not truly want to be helped, because they are addicted to the sympathy and attention their negativity gets them.
To avoid self-reflection and accountability, the toxically negative person is well versed in criticism and blame. Nothing is their fault – it’s always something or someone else.
I’m hoping you are not the toxically negative person, and if you are – get help. But chances are toxically negative people will not be reading this post in any case. So my next words are to those who would like to handle any toxically negative people in their lives.
I’m assuming that you will cut out the chronic negativists you don’t absolutely have to have in your life. If not, please do. Even if one of them is a long-time “friend” – it’s about time you downgraded or even ended the relationship to make room for others who can help you build and for whom you can do the same. Isn’t it time to stop pointing out possibilities and opportunities to someone who seems to prefer sympathy to solutions?
Moreover, here are some strategies if you can’t just cut them off completely due to family or work ties. Why? Because you need to protect yourself from the toxic negativity of others.
Distinguish between someone who is truly going through a hard time and in need of compassion, help and care, and a person addicted to negativity. The latter will often be critical, gossipy and vocal complainers. A person who is genuinely suffering will often be subdued and preoccupied. Make sure you offer help and support to those who genuinely need it, not to those who feed off it.
- Reduce contact with them to a minimum, and keep each encounter drama-free.
- If they directly ask for a reaction, give a neutral response, “That’s challenging” rather than agreeing or disagreeing with their claims. Or say, “I’m sorry you’re struggling with that.” If they keep persisting in their efforts to get you hooked, end the conversation gracefully.
- Never engage in a power struggle: some of them may know what your buttons are and will keep pressing them to get you to respond/react and when you fall into the trap they set, they will feel justified to criticize you and gossip about you to all those who play their game..
- Don’t offer advice or recommendations.
- If they directly ask for something from you, develop strong boundaries so you know when to say yes, and when to refuse politely. [It may be a good compromise to agree to something you can fulfill quickly and completely, but refuse to commit to long-term demands. Agree to cook dinner tonight, do laundry or go out for a coffee. Or take over a chore/task completely from them if it suits you, so there is little or no ongoing negotiation. Refuse an offer for monthly dinner, weekly Zoom or joint membership or ongoing commitment that requires ongoing negotiation.]
- The best way to deal with these people is to reduce contact as much as possible, and then to keep all contact drama-free regardless of the provocation.
- Maintain strong boundaries, but act kindly. Bless them in your heart and sincerely wish them well.
The key to handling a toxically negative person who part of your life is to develop strong boundaries and to use them calmly and consistently till they get the message that you will not longer play their game. It could be that in time, at least with you, they will develop a somewhat healthy relationship. We can love such a person, and still protect ourselves from toxic fallout - just as a person can love an addict and refuse to become codependent, however hard that may be.
Both toxically negative and toxically positive people will draw susceptible people into their circles. So the solution is to be make sure firstly, that we are aware of and have clarity about what this means, and secondly, that we practice healthy positivity and healthy negativity. Which brings us to the last point under discussion today – healthy negativity.
What is healthy negativity?
Photo by Aline de Nadai on Unsplash
Healthy negativity is the ability to resist sugar coating any situation, and to instead view it and respond to it with deep honest and authenticity. As a result, it is actually a key ingredient for living a fulfilling and successful life on your own terms.
The positive outcomes of negative thinking have been underrated over the last few decades, but there are signs that there is a trend back to balance in this area. If self-confidence and optimism are not balanced with a dash of healthy negativity, sooner or later you will trip and fall. Without healthy negativity, we are quite likely to overestimate our capabilities and fail to recognize our limitations (the Dunning-Kruger Effect), and the only way we improve and build is if we see the situation clearly – if we can’t see what’s wrong, we can’t make it right.
The key to keep negativity healthy is to keep it logical. We can do this by asking questions:
- Could I be wrong about this?
- How could I identify any fatal flaws in my ideas?
- Have I done an honest SWOT analysis about this?
- What are the possible challenges that lie ahead?
To be truly prepared for something, you have to do some healthy negative thinking about it. While it is preferable to overall be a [realistically] optimistic person, forced positive thinking will stifle creativity and critical thinking. After all, why should you bother with the unpleasantness of preparing for a storm if you can just think your way to eternal sunshine?
Another way to question a situation that’s not working is to focus on the four types of questions designed by the brilliant Robert Fritz. Ask questions to get to:
Once we have a clearer picture of the current situation, we can adopt a Kaizen approach to our lives. Kaizen is a philosophy which has proved itself as a potent method for both personal growth and for business management. In business, Kaizen is the popular term for the philosophy of continuous improvement, or the implementation of small, easy, sustainable tweaks rather than large-scale innovations. Adopting the philosophy of Kaizen makes it easier for us to persist. A Kaizen approach to our goals and our achievements means that we are humble enough to recognize we may be wrong and to proceed in a way that takes such a possibility into account.
In no way does healthy negativity ever descend into toxic negativity. In fact, I believe healthy positivity and healthy negativity are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. Whereas, toxic positivity and toxic negativity are rooted in fear of the shadow of the disowned parts of ourselves. The toxically positive person disowns their vulnerability and authenticity and the toxically negative person disowns their responsibility and ownership.
If we don’t have the right approach to positivity and negativity, we stack the odds against ourselves – talk about self sabotage! We will open ourselves up to problems associated with denial and deflection, and we and/or those around us will pay a heavy price for it.
On the other hand, once we balance these areas properly, we’ll have gone a long way towards living a fulfilling and authentic life. Healthy negativity and its associated feeling such as anger, irritation, and sadness will point out what we what needs to be changed, what we should be prepared for, and will help us chart a realistic path ahead. Healthy positivity will allow us to face the inevitable ups and downs of that path, and navigate all of life with hope, optimism and creativity.
Top photo by Sasin Tipchai on Pixabay
If you liked this post, check out my post on how to conquer worry: https://www.leonasamson.com/post/how-to-worry-your-way-to-less-worry
Recalibrate your mindset in less than 90 minutes with my online course: https://destinate-navigate-create.teachable.com/p/undauntable