It’s nearly impossible to go on Facebook or Instagram without seeing quotes or comments accompanied by motivational words like, “Look on the bright side,” “Focus on the good stuff,” or “Be positive.”
In any case, the pandemic has exacerbated the phenomenon of “toxic positivity.” In Québec, the famous slogan, “It’ll be fine‘ is undoubtedly one of the best-known examples of this.
While well-intentioned, these phrases can end up causing more distress rather than helping. Why? Because they are examples of toxic positivity, a school of thought based on the principle that one should always have a positive attitude, even when the going gets tough.
As a doctoral student in psychology, I am interested in internalized symptoms (depression, anxiety and social withdrawal) and externalized symptoms (delinquency, violent, oppositional/defensive, disruptive and impulsive behavior). I believe it is important to focus on the negative consequences of “emotional disability” and understand why we have to live with our negative emotions.
When a person talks about what he or she is feeling, their main goal is usually to validate their emotions, to understand and accept the emotional experience. Emotional invalidity, on the other hand, involves ignoring, denying, criticizing or rejecting the feelings of another.
Several studies have looked at the effects of emotional disability. The conclusions are clear: it is very harmful to mental health. People who experience emotional disability are more likely to have depressive symptoms.
Emotional disability has many negative effects. A person who is regularly disabled may have problems accept, control and understand their emotions.
In addition, people who expect their emotions to be nullified are less likely to have psychological flexibility, namely the ability to tolerate difficult thoughts and emotions and resist defending themselves unnecessarily.
The more psychological flexibility a person has, the more able they are to live with their emotions and get through difficult situations. For example, in the aftermath of a breakup, a young man feels anger, sadness, and confusion. His friend listens to him and validates him. The man then normalizes his conflicting feelings and understands that the feelings will not last forever.
On the other hand, another man going through the same kind of breakup doesn’t understand his feelings, feels ashamed and fears losing control of his emotions. His friend invalidates him and does not want to listen to him. The man then tries to suppress his emotions, which triggers anxiety and can even lead to depression.
These two examples, taken from the study “Process Underlying Depression: Risk Aversion, Emotional Schemas, and Psychological Flexibility” by American psychologists and researchers Robert L. Leahy, Dennis Tirch, and Poonam S. Melwani, are neither rare nor harmless. The avoidance response, where we do everything possible to avoid experiencing negative emotions, is often reinforced by those around us.
Some people are so affected by other people’s misfortunes that just seeing this grief makes them unhappy. Therefore, they respond with positive comments. However, the ability to live with our emotions is essential. Suppressing or avoiding them doesn’t solve anything. In fact, trying to avoid negative emotions at all costs does not have the desired effect – on the contrary, the emotions come back more often and more intensely.
Being negative: a state of mind with ancient origins
Unfortunately, humans are not made to be positive all the time. On the contrary, we are more likely to recall bad memories. This probably dates back to a time, centuries ago, when our survival depended on our reflex to avoid danger. A person who ignores signs of danger, even once, can find themselves in a catastrophic or even fatal situation.
In this article, “Bad is stronger than good“The authors, both psychologists, explain how in evolutionary history, the organisms that were better at identifying danger were more likely to survive threats. So the most alert among humans were more likely to pass on their genes. As a result, we are in some ways programmed to pay attention to potential sources of danger.
How the negativity bias manifests itself
This phenomenon is known as the negativity bias. Research has identified four manifestations of this bias: so we can understand it better. One of these manifestations is associated with the vocabulary we use to describe negative events.
In a phenomenon called negative differentiation, it turns out that the vocabulary we have to describe negative events is much richer and more varied than the vocabulary used to describe positive events. In addition, negative stimuli are generally interpreted as more elaborate and differentiated than positive ones.
The vocabulary used to describe physical pain is also much more complex than the vocabulary used to describe physical pleasure. Another example: parents find it easier to judge their babies’ negative emotions than their positive emotions.
No more prefabricated sentences
Negative emotions are a product of human complexity and are just as important as positive ones.
The next time someone confides in you about their emotions, if you don’t know what to say, opt for listening and emotional validation. Use expressions like, “Looks like you’ve had a rough day,” or “It was hard, wasn’t it?”
It’s worth noting that being positive isn’t always synonymous with toxic positivity — the purpose of this is to reject and avoid anything negative and only see the positive side of things. An example of positive and validating language is: “It’s normal to feel this way after such a serious event, let’s try to understand it.” Toxic positivity, on the other hand, sounds more like, “Stop seeing the negative, think about the positives instead.”
Finally, if you are unable to validate and listen, refer the person to a mental health professional who knows how to help them.