Beyond the Smile: The Dark Side of Toxic Positivity and Emotional Suppression
Written by Jo Buckland- Director of WellBe.
I meet people every day and the answer the question “what do you want to get out of therapy?” is usually answered with “I just want to be happy”. However, happiness is a narrow expression of our total existence. Denying other experiences can have the opposite effect and take us further from what we wish for. Understandably, happiness is a common aspiration, particularly when we receive an endless stream of sentiments on social media like “happiness is a choice”, or “just think positive”, but it doesn’t always transfer to the real world. Could you imagine saying this to someone after they’ve just experienced a painful breakup, deep depression, a terminal diagnosis
or severe anxiety? It’s just not how humans work.
There are many benefits of having a positive outlook. However, toxic positivity is when we mask difficult experiences under a veil of ‘everything’s fine’ believing positivity is the cure-all for difficult experiences. Imagine if we applied positivity to physical health for a moment. If I catch my arm on something sharp and it’s caused a scratch, a response like “No big deal, it’s just a scratch” isn’t out of place. If, on the other hand, I’ve been in an accident, and my arm’s hanging off, the "It's no big deal" phrase minimises a serious situation. Without the right support, someone's health can be put at risk. Just like physical responses to pain, emotional responses are the body’s way of communicating that an issue needs our attention. Ignoring these needs can and does have an impact on our long-term health.
Humans concealing emotions isn't new. Sometimes it's necessary or beneficial. However, concealing emotions from ourselves and others for long periods can signify suppression. Research on emotional suppression has reliably demonstrated that bottling emotions up lowers our immunity, making us more susceptible to health issues over time (Pennebaker et. al 1997). Although there is a clear link between genuine emotional expression and positive wellbeing, there are cultural influences that suggest toxic positivity in lieu of genuine experience is on the rise.
" Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs…" - Victoria Tarratt, Provisional Clinical psychologist.
The rise of toxic positivity
At the heart of human nature is our need for connection and belonging, which is why we're particularly susceptible to swaying with cultural movements. To avoid exclusion, we compare ourselves with others to make sure we're fitting in with social expectations. But what happens when what appears 'normal' has a detrimental impact?
In today's hyper-connected world, we spend up to two hours (on average) online each day. The popularity of social media has amplified the pressure to project a constant facade of happiness. We are bombarded with a curated world that promotes an unrealistic ideal of a perpetually positive life, and it’s taking its toll, particularly on young people.
One study, showed people from younger generations brought up online feeling pressure to maintain a positive online presence, and the reasons they gave were fearing judgment for not fitting in (Mäntymäki et al. 2019). While the benefits of social media have been linked to feelings of connectedness and reduced social isolation, a bias towards ‘positive vibes only’ is influencing the rise to toxic positivity in place of authentic experience.
Social media isn't the cause, it's a contributing factor. When our survival needs for inclusion are combined with people connected on mass, there is the potential to influence culture on a macro level, which changes behaviour at a micro level. While social platforms have played a role in the rise of toxic positivity, they can also play a role in a movement towards healthy expression.
Spotting the Signs of Toxic Positivity
We are all influenced by culture. It's likely that we have experienced or contributed to toxic positivity without realising it. I'm sure I have. Recognising the signs in ourselves and others helps us to become aware of what toxic positivity looks like and how to change it.
1) Superficial Relationships
Statement: “How are you doing since finding out about your diagnosis?”. Response: “I’m fine. Many others have it worse than me, so why should I complain?”. That good old phrase "it’s fine!", when we’re clearly not OK. Developing deep, authentic connections requires letting people in. Without this, we keep people at a surface-level connection and can become isolated and feel disconnected even when people surround us.
2) Minimising Experiences
Statement: “I’m really unhappy in my relationship with my partner” Answer: “At least you have a partner, just be grateful. Some people never find love.”. Although often well-meaning, statements such as “just be grateful for what you have” can stop people from sharing experiences and developing authentic connections. We are social creatures. A lack of genuine connection can and will impact our emotional health over time.
3) Blaming and Criticising
Some statements can suggest fault or blame for natural emotions, e.g. “Happiness is a choice”. Try saying this to someone in significant pain. It’s like telling someone with an injury, “Bleeding is a choice”. Yes, we can take action to assist in healing and avoid injury in the future, but we can’t turn off natural responses to healing.
4) Feeling Guilt or Shame
Statement: “I’m sorry for feeling this way”. How often have we heard or said this? Too often. When we experience pressure to put on a smiley face during challenging times, we can find it challenging to reach out. This internalised pressure may lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and internalised stigma.
5) Emotional Exhaustion
Hiding emotions requires a lot of effort. Masking can lead to emotional exhaustion, impacting mental and physical health over time.
" A failure to acknowledge difficult emotions through forced, false positivity, is a failure to see ourselves. "- Dr. Susan David, Psychologist and Author
Working Through Difficult Emotions
Research has shown that acknowledging and understanding our emotions through self-reflective practices can profoundly improve our health and wellbeing. Here is a list of strategies proven to improve overall wellbeing and health.
1. Journal Your Emotions
Encourage the practice of journaling to process and work through difficult emotions. Writing down thoughts and feelings can be therapeutic and help gain clarity on emotional experiences. Suggest prompts like, "Describe what you're feeling right now," or "Write about any recurring patterns in your emotions."
2. Practice Mindfulness
Suggest mindfulness techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or grounding exercises to manage intense emotions. These practices can help individuals stay present and build emotional resilience. Offer guidance like, "Let's try some mindful breathing exercises together to help you find calmness in the moment."
There are many ways to explore the root causes of difficult emotions but we don’t often allow ourselves the time and space to do this. If mindfulness and journalling don’t float your boat, asking yourself questions like, "What is causing these feelings?" or "What triggered this reaction?". Introspection can provide insights and self-awareness needed that lead to positive change.
4. Seek Professional Support
it’s not always easy to be authentic, especially if we don’t have trusting relationships. Seeking support from someone who has an understanding of human nature and normal responses to difficult situations can make all the difference.
On a personal note.
Showing up authentically has taken time for me to figure out. In my previous careers, I have kept my struggles completely separate from my business life. Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing symptoms of unprocessed grief and trauma. I had suppressed these experiences for so long that I even convinced myself at one point that all was OK because I was doing well at work. This must mean that I was high functioning, right? It was as if it was honourable to exist in discomfort as long as I was successful in business. In reality, it was a way to avoid difficult experiences that prevented me from facing them. It took some time, but through self-acceptance, therapy, and being open with people I trusted over time, meant I could heal.
As someone who now helps others navigate challenges, I certainly felt the pressure in the early days to appear as if I had never struggled. But it's thanks to my experiences of navigating mental health challenges, and my professional training combined that make me an effective practitioner. I don't believe you can be an effective counsellor learning from books alone. Take a look at another profession for the equivalent; who would you rather teach you how to fly, someone who has read about flying or someone who has accumulated many hours? There is value in training and first-hand experience.
However, there is a balance to be had. It wouldn't be helpful for me always to share my experiences in sessions, nor is it useful to pretend I've never been challenged. What I practice instead is writing about real experiences, and when people ask, and they do, I ask them what they'd like to know, and I'm honest. Someone said it helped her feel less like a patient, and another said it was comforting to know that I had experience in what was being explored. It allows us to be human together.
"I've witnessed life-long depression be lifted, anxiety transformed, people find purpose, and individuals come back from the brink of suicide when they can share their experiences authentically with someone they trust."- Joanna Buckland, Director of WellBe.
My business is all about creating spaces where people can be real. Where they can express all the things that remain unsaid and bottled up. I've witnessed life-long depression be lifted, anxiety transformed, people find purpose, and individuals come back from the brink of suicide when they can share with someone they trust.
Learning to accept ourselves for who or what we are and how we feel is freeing. We're far from the picture-perfect images we're led to believe we ought to be. Humans are messy. I am. You are. We all are. Life can be bloody difficult as it is without the added complication of shutting ourselves away. We're all a work in progress, but that's what unites us in our shared humanity.
Matti Mäntymäki; Abayomi Baiyere; A. K.M.Najmul Islam (2019). Digital platforms and the changing nature of physical work: Insights from ride-hailing. International Journal of Information Management, ISSN: 0268-4012, Vol: 49, Page: 452-460 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2019.08.007
Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5), 1264–1272. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684
Riddell, T., Nassif, J., Hategan, A., Jarecki, J. (2020). Healthy Habits: Positive Psychology, Journaling, Meditation, and Nature Therapy. In: Hategan, A., Saperson, K., Harms, S., Waters, H. (eds) Humanism and Resilience in Residency Training. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-45627-6_14