“Change your mindset, change your life”, “Stop being average”, “Hustle 24/7”, “Think positively every day.”
Have you seen these types of statements on social media? How did they make you feel?
I’m a success coach and motivational speaker. I absolutely love self-development; it forms the foundation of what I speak about with my audience. I recognize positive thinking can change your life, but only up to a certain point.
What happens when this pressure to be positive 24/7 actually does the opposite? What if it causes people to feel inadequate, like they are not enough, like they will never be fully happy with their life?
I first started thinking about a counterintuitive approach to positive thinking when I read Mark Manson’s book, called The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F***. One passage really stood out:
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience. Aka the Backwards Law put forth by Alan Watts, it’s the idea that the more you pursue feeling better, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.”
I had to read this passage more than once to really let the message sink in. It doesn’t mean positive thinking is a bad thing, but an overload of it can lead you to a place where you actually feel more negative in your life.
On social media, people usually post the highlight reels of life. We don’t really know what is happening behind the scenes. Everything seems perfect on the surface, however, sometimes there is a different story behind that highlight reel.
Social media is also full of inspirational quotes and influencers hyping us up, saying we need to be more positive, we need to think big, and never slow down. The combination of seeing people’s highlight reels and being told to be better can lead to toxicity in our own life. We must be careful not to compare our chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 20, or to assume they have it all together when they might be in chapter 1, just like us.
Social media can be very positive—connecting us with others, helping form new connections and friendships that could help you in your career, building your brand, etc. However, research on social media and mental health supports the idea that too much of it can hurt rather than help us. According to Health Guide, “Multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.”
Social media becomes harmful when it prompts us to believe that negative experiences are not ok.
When we think everyone else is happy and positive and we should be too, we can feel like we’re failing. This is often the result of consumer culture and social media.
This rise of extreme focus on positive thinking has led to something known as “toxic positivity.”
“Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or — my pet peeve term — ‘positive vibes,’” explains Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in, among other things, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.
Toxic positivity sets an unrealistic expectation that we need to be happy all the time. As a result, we might put on this fake positivity, which in turn prevents us from actually experiencing true positivity and happiness. Toxic positivity can also prevent people from seeking help to improve their mental wellness and their life as a whole.
I know that negative experiences are a natural part of life and we have to go through them to learn vital lessons about ourselves and to heal from challenging situations. It might sound counterintuitive, but embracing negative experiences and feeling negative can actually be a good thing. Fully feeling our emotions—even when they’re negative or unpleasant— allows us to properly heal.
The challenge of engaging with negative emotions is doing it in a constructive way. For example, reflecting on negative experiences might teach you what you have to do to take your life to the next level and become the best version of yourself. If you bury negative thoughts and experiences because you feel guilty that you are going through them, you might end up in a dark place. Ignored negative emotions tend to build up over the years, which is why it’s better to come face to face with them, to analyze those thoughts and feelings, and formulate solutions to your challenges instead of ignoring them.
Mahmoud Khedr, co-founder and CEO of FloraMind - a social-impact-driven company that partners with schools to provide mental health and well-being programs- gave a speech at TEDx Menlo College titled, “How Toxic Positivity Leads To More Suffering.” He gives tips on what to say instead of accidentally spreading toxic positivity. Here is an example of a toxic positivity statement and a great substitute for that statement:
Toxic Positivity Statement 1: “Just be positive.”
Replace this statement with,
Validation & Support Statement: “It’s never great to feel like that. Is there something we can do today that you’d enjoy?”
Responding with supportive statements means truly listening to people rather than trying to solve their problems or telling them what to think.
By truly listening without interrupting and intentionally choosing what you say in conversation with someone who is going through a challenging situation, you will be able to help a lot of people. Pay close attention to the words you use. Many people just want someone to listen.
It’s important to know that everyone has their own timeline for when things will occur. We tend to compare our life events to other people’s timelines. A wonderful life coach named Marie Forleo said, “Comparison is the hamburgler to happiness.” I thought this statement was hilarious, but it has such a deep true meaning. She also says that we should stop drinking “Compare-schlager” which goes along with that statement just mentioned. The word is a play on the name of a liquor, Goldschlager Cinnamon Schnapps, that she said tasted horrible when she had it in college.
In conclusion, I always like to say trust the process and know that things will happen when the time is right for you. But remember to still take consistent action on the dreams that you have, and surround yourself with people that will uplift and encourage you with validating and supportive statements instead of forcing positivity upon you until it becomes toxic. Have friends in your circle that are honest enough to tell you when you are drinking too much “compare-schlager”. Friends that ultimately empower you and help you rise to the next level in your life, whatever that next level may mean to you. Know that it’s ok to have negative thoughts and experiences. The setbacks that you experience in life are actually setups for your future.
WRITTEN BYYumna Aysen