Being positive and cheerful is all very well. But a relentless obsession with positivity can be highly dangerous, says Dr Andrew McDowell .

Toxic Positivity – Why we need to take care that positive vibes don’t turn toxic 

It’s a cliché now to say that Covid has changed everything. But like all clichés it hides within it a truth. That is that the pandemic has had a profound impact on us all. From families juggling home working with home schooling, to universities where students have to all practical purposes been locked away with their only teaching contacts via Zoom. The financial challenges for many have been severe, and definitely are not over, as living costs soar ever upwards. 

Nowhere has the impact been felt more powerfully than in the health and social care sectors. Attending to the health and care of a population during a global pandemic has led to unprecedented challenges.  Trying to deliver compassionate care to very sick people, many of whom did not survive or have been profoundly impacted despite the very best efforts of those whose job is to care and heal, leaves deep scars. We’ve come to believe that despite the difficulties the health and social care sectors face daily, and the underfunding which has gone on for years; our health and social care system – and those who work in it – can and will cope. Covid has exposed this perspective as a myth. Not only that, but the scars it has inflicted – including lengthening waiting lists and mental health concerns – look like they are not going away any time soon.         

No new normal 

Yet there are still commentators who speak about a time ahead when we’ll ‘return to normal’. As if we can unwind the years and start afresh. That’s also a myth. The new ‘normal’ is an under-funded healthcare sector burdened with a continued fall out from a pandemic which is still a long, long way from being over. 

A bleak picture? Maybe you think I should ‘look on the bright side’, ‘count my blessings’, or simply ‘pull myself together and get on with it’, or any of the numerous other phrases we employ when faced with dark days ahead. And to some extent I’d agree. Yes, we need to stay positive, and nobody is saying we should simply give in to the doom and gloom as if there were no other alternatives. But there is a very fine thread that hangs between facing up to the challenges of ‘new normal’ and dealing with them in ways which are actually effective, and a dangerous, even obsessive reliance on being forever upbeat and positive. 

Authentic emotion v bland cliché

Toxic positivity is the name given to this condition. It’s the fine line where we can tip over from calls to channel our ‘positive vibes’, into a denial of our ‘authentic emotional experiences’. Toxic positivity means ignoring what we perceive to be negative emotions, and responding to distress or suffering with false reassurances or gushing positive thinking, rather than by expressing real empathy.  

The roots of toxic positivity are in our tendency to try to avoid the dissonance that comes with holding negative emotions, and suppressing how we a really feeling.  While well intentioned, it can leave people feeling unseen, alienated or disconnected. 

Positivity, if it has little to offer other than bland clichés, is unreal and therefore a denial of that all too human authenticity. Instead we need to accept the very real feelings people have, and recognise that these are heartfelt – and, most importantly, permissible. It’s OK to feel sad, tearful and depressed. It’s part of being a human being. It’s how we recognise and react to these emotions and experiences that matters. 

That’s why toxic positivity is so potentially dangerous. Rather than addressing the underlying and genuine feelings people have, and the reasons why those feelings exist, it all too often tips over into denying those feelings and the reasons why they arise. Instead it is easier to ask people to smile though their tears and laugh in the face of adversity. But it simply won’t work. 

By denying those very real emotions we create a dangerous situation. Because we are simply not dealing with them, but avoiding them. Even perhaps hoping that if we can find the right words to say the problems will magically go away. There may well be a genuine desire to make things better by being positive, but in the long run far more damage will be done than by really addressing the deeper transformational issues at the heart of the matter. It is scattering pixy dust about when we need real, deep and adult responses to real, deep adult issues. 

So what can – and should – we be doing to avoid the worst of toxic positivity? That’ll be the subject of my next blog. 

In the meantime – agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you.