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Toxic positivity – is it really a ‘thing’ and are we now not ‘allowed’ to be too positive?

How many times have you heard phrases like ‘positive vibes’, ‘put your positive pants on’ and ‘things could be worse’?  How many times have you found yourself saying these types of things to your friends, family and work colleagues? Probably quite a lot I’d hazard a guess. With the increased focus on wellbeing in the workplace it can be difficult to know what the best course of action is to take if individuals do bring up concerns or are negative.

It’s not that positivity, or a ‘glass half full’ outlook, is now suddenly wrong but it does seem that too much of a good thing is, in fact, bad.

What is toxic positivity?

Firstly, let’s try to explain what toxic positivity is. According to The Psychology Group, it’s an excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. Put simply, Dr Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist states, “toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should have a positive mindset (or radiate positive vibes).”

Essentially, I interpret that as positivity which is overused to cover up or silence the human experience and reaction to the world around us. A danger of which could be burying, to the point of concealment, real concerns, worries and reactions which are natural and should be expressed.

Toxic positivity can come in many forms, a friend who chastises you expressing frustrations rather than listening to you about the reasons for your frustrations. A family member saying that you should ‘look on the bright side of life.’ Your manager saying, ‘at least we are busy, unlike some’ when you mention you are struggling with your workload. A meme that responds to your text message suggesting you should change your outlook. In summary, toxic positivity sees expressions of negativity as wasteful, indulgent and downright wrong.

I’m by no means a negative individual who is saying that the party is over or suggesting that having a positive outlook is wrong, I am a firm believer that everything is never as bad as it seems but I recognise that overdosing on positivity in the wrong circumstances can sometimes be just as harmful as excessive negativity.

Here are some signs of toxic positivity so you can recognise when it’s happening:

  • Covering up true feelings and opinions
  • Adopting the ‘just crack on’ approach
  • Feeling guilty or anxious about what you feel
  • Trivialising other people’s experiences and reactions with or without ‘feel good’ statements
  • Ignoring an emotional response and moving straight to a solution
  • Shaming or chastising others who express anything but positivity, using the ‘man up’ phrase

In light of the pandemic the automatic reaction might be to sway to the overly optimistic outlook, dealing with the reality might just be too difficult at the moment.

So what should we do?

Encourage and support a culture which provides an open forum for employees to discuss their concerns and frustrations is the first step. The second being an acknowledgement for colleagues and managers that employees might be facing difficulties and need to express, sometimes even vent. It is not the responsibility of a manager to solve the problem and I think this is sometimes this assumption that can cause toxic positivity.

Once you have ‘fixed’ the problem you can easily find yourself putting the ‘positivity cherry on top of the cake’ by making statements such as, ‘there you go! That was easy enough, not sure what the problem was there.’ In one fell swoop you have disregarded the concern, undermined the employee and taught them to think twice about raising anything slightly negative ever again.

I would recommend that as managers, and colleagues, we stop.

Stop and think.

Stop and listen. Not every question needs an answer, not all problems need a solution. Quite often just listening and acknowledging is enough. It takes a confident person to sit back and listen, knowing that its all the other party needed at that time.

In summary, note to self, keep up with the positive outlook but don’t ram it down someone’s throat or disregard normal human emotion, now or any other time. Everyone is trying to put their best foot forward during these unprecedented times.

If you’d like to develop your leadership skills and/or mental health awareness in this area our People Projects team offer tailored training sessions to support your development either on a 1:1 mentor basis or in group sessions.