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Toxic Positivity: Positive action over positive thinking

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and the aim of this podcast is to make you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life, which we do by getting you ideas, tools, tips, techniques from all over the world. This season, we’re going to focus on emotions, which is a fundamental part of the human experience. Now, today’s episode is about toxic positivity. We have clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany, who’s going to talk us through this, and we’re going to discuss the flip side of positivity. Is it healthy to suppress emotions? Is it healthy to force yourself to feel positive when you’re dealing with all kinds of emotions, all kinds of issues? Or is it harmful to do that? So welcome to this show and thank you for being here with us today.

Seema Hingorrany: You’re most welcome. It’s my pleasure.

AB: So let’s get into toxic positivity. What is it and how can it weigh on one’s mental health?

SH: So there is a trend going on, and I see this in my clients, that they have this need to be very positive all the time. I feel toxic positivity is, one, rejecting your own emotions, that’s negative emotions, which we all have, and I will come to that, suppressing your [negative] emotions, abandoning your emotions that’s negative, which for me, is very, very unhealthy. Toxic positivity, for me also, is not having the strength to admit that we have negative emotions. Emotions are both negative and positive. So if I’m giving up on my negative emotions, I’m suppressing, I’m actually stopping [the] process that’s toxic positivity for me.

AB: So do you think it’s more in women or in men? Because, you know, in some cultures, you find that women want to… especially when it comes to their families, they want to say everything is okay. They feel [that] no matter what they’re going through, they’ll just suppress it because there’s this expectation from society. But on the other hand, you find that men are also taught [that] you’re not meant to cry. You’re the provider. You’re meant to be in charge. So they have a lot of suppressed emotions as well. So would you comment on that?

SH: No. I see toxic positivity in both genders; I see it in women and in men, but in different dimensions. Women are supposed to be positive all the time because they’re responsible for the family. Like you said, they’re responsible for their kids. So [when] a woman came to me and said that I’m not able to admit my negative emotions in the therapy room today because I feel if I’m going to be negative, it’s going to have [a] negative impact on my kids; I’m like, it’s the other way around. If you’re not processing your negative emotions and if you’re not healing from them, if you’re not talking about your traumas, it’s going to affect your kids. And she said, “How?” I said, “Then it’s going to manifest in different ways.” So people don’t understand when you are suppressing your emotions and what it’s doing to you, as far as men are concerned. Like you rightly said, you’re not supposed to cry; you’re a man. So again, [they’re] suppressing. So both these genders suppress emotions, but in a different way, leading to toxic positivity. Because we all need something to cling on to, right? So then we cling on to toxic positivity. Oh, I’m positive all the time. I’m positive without realising that the emotions are then going to get trapped in a different way.

AB: I also feel that in a woman’s case, what happens is when we suppress our emotions, or actually even in the case of men, it almost goes into our cells, it becomes cellular memory and it then becomes trauma. It’s all one step at a time. And then the trauma causes physical ailments. So it becomes like a spiral.

SH: So, Anshu, we see arthritis, PCOD, PCOS, gastro problems, [and] autoimmune disorders. And the worst is cancer. All these are your cells storing trauma, complex PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. PTSD is an intrusive trauma [that] has not been processed or dealt with. Then there are two ways of looking at it. Either I have someone hold space for me where I talk about the event and process, and [or] I suppress. What we are talking about, extreme toxic positivity, is me not talking about it because of [the] shame associated; that I have to be this strong woman, I cannot be vulnerable.

AB: And tell me, do you think social media contributes to toxic positivity? 

SB: 65% to 70% of my clients in conversations talk about that. I see my friends’ Instagram or Facebook pages, and I see them all so happy. And I want to be that happy, without realising our circumstances are different, [our] experiences are different, how we look, what lens we use, and we don’t know five minutes prior what happened, before the picture was clicked or what’s going to happen five minutes later. So social media has a very important role to play, but we humans also use it as a very negative tool. We want to see what we want to see. If we see everybody happy and yourself as a victim, then it’s not going to help. So social media, yes, but also if I keep changing the lens and I say, “You know what? I don’t want to compare my life with people’s [lives]; they are happy; good for them.” I have to look at my internal experience, and then I’m blessed.

AB: And how does one deal with this social media situation? Do you limit screen time? In today’s day and age, people are using phones for everything. So how do we limit it? 

SH: Anshu, a balance of everything is important. I have a lot of women and men coming to me with addictions to their phones. It’s because they’re not dividing their time in a balanced way. So where is the root of addiction that we need to trace? How do I have addictions? Say, suppose my clients come with addictions to sweets, alcohol, substance abuse, and Netflix. You name it, I have it. The root cause is your belief system, your trauma, and your negative beliefs. If I’m going to feel like I’m not good enough, I’m going to be taking pleasure in other people’s lives. So my request to all people who are listening is to go back to the roots and see why you don’t have a balanced time. Be on your phone; monitor your weekly hours on the phone. Are you reading a good book? Are you doing your meditation? Are you going for your walks? Are you co-regulating with people in person? Meet your friends, go for coffee, and half your problems will be solved.

AB: So when most of our loved ones come to us— and people will vouch for this, you try and give them hope. You try and say to them, look, tomorrow is going to be a better day. Be positive. It’s not the end of the world. But are we actually inculcating toxic positivity in them?

SH: So I tell my clients, who also come to me for advice, how to deal with someone negative or depressed in their family, and I say, okay, this is good to use. This is a positive statement. No therapist is going to say, “Don’t use it.” But constantly using this when a person is talking about their emotions and feelings is actually dismissing their feelings and emotions and negating them. So while I tell my clients to be positive, I say, “Okay, let’s first work on your negative emotions. Let’s see, what are you actually feeling and thinking? Toxic positivity is when I’m actually telling them, “No, we are not going to talk about your negative thoughts and feelings.” That’s dangerous. Your processing will stop there. So if you really want to help someone, say, “You know what? It’s good to be positive, but can you talk about what negative emotions you have?” Or can you go to a mental health expert to talk about anything? Encourage the person to talk about negative [things], then give them this bit of advice.

AB: Just following up from what you’ve said. When someone comes to you with an issue or you see someone who’s quite upset, who’s grieving for whatever, when is the right time to tell them to be positive? And when would you tell them you need to grieve? How would a layman judge that?

SH: It depends on the intensity of the symptoms. If I’m teaching someone how to deal with people who are grieving, see the intensity of the trauma that has happened. If it’s a minor fight between two friends, they will be able to self-regulate in about a day or two. But if a death has happened, financial loss, financial deaths in the family, like I said, losing a loved one, loss of a job, or if a teenager comes to me and says, “Hey, you know what? My parents are separating”, I can’t tell them— oh, be positive. It totally depends on the intensity of trauma and the presenting symptoms. So, like I said, if there’s a mild symptom, this positive statement will work. Most times, when people go through something severe, their nervous system shuts down. They experience numbness. Fight-flight-freeze mode. In fight-flight-freeze mode, you cannot expect them to register positive statements. I will register positive statements when I’m moving from fight-flight-freeze mode to a mode of the nervous system where my brain is digesting thoughts, emotions, and feelings. That is the time. If you tell me, “Hey, Seema, why can’t you be positive? Why can’t you look at this differently using different perceptions?” With me, I will be able to freeze my fight.  And it’s not difficult to judge as a layperson; if you are attuned to a person, you can…

AB: But Seema there are situations where someone is going through a trauma but doesn’t know it, and the people around them do not know it because they’ve suppressed it so well.

SH: Right. Somewhere, the presenting symptoms will show if my client is, or if any person, not even my client, but a friend, is laughing too much or is totally shut down. So it’s a thin line, but it can be made out easily. I mean, even lay people can make out that this person is trying to put up a front.

AB: So most people are trying to be the best parents that they can be to their children, and they’re trying to teach them about positivity. How can we also teach our children to embrace negative emotions and deal with them, not suppress them?

SH: Good question. So when something negative happens— which usually happens in everyone’s life, say, in school, or if a child has gotten into an issue with a teacher or with a bully, allow them to talk and say, “It’s normal to go through this challenge. What are you feeling?”. Tell them that they can honour their negative feelings and hold space for them. This is how teens and children realise that challenges will happen and that there will be associated emotions. I have a lot of teens, and they come to me and say, “Is it okay that I’m feeling this way?”. And I validate that. And I say, yes, it is absolutely fine. “Oh, but my mom taught me that I’m not supposed to feel my feelings, and I’m supposed to feel positive all the time. And she says that positivity will attract more positivity. So I’m scared to feel negative now”. And I’m like,  you know what? You cannot feel positive all the time, so validate that if you’re feeling negative emotions, you’re still normal. Normal people can feel all kinds of emotions. And once you tell them that, trust me, they have such a sigh of relief. It’s okay to feel jealous. I say yes sometimes. It’s okay to feel sad. Anger, yes. Let’s not run away from these emotions, Anshu. They are an integral part of our evolution. Feeling too much of it is not normal. And feeling persistently sick for six months is not normal either…

AB: And you’ve got toxic positivity on the one side, right? And on the other side, you’ve got emotional authenticity. What happens is sometimes you can go too far into your negative emotions and it becomes a downward spiral. So how does one prevent that?

SH: Like I said, it’s the balance. If I am going to go into negativity and I’m playing a victim role all the time without doing any self-reflection work, if I’m not taking an appointment with my therapist, if I’m not talking to my friend, [I’m] authentically [saying], look, I’m feeling this. So if I’m internalising way too much, if I’m victimising, if I’m crying a lot, if my self-worth is not increasing, and it’s happening for a longer period of time, then one needs to find some resources to come out. And if someone is giving you the resource, take it. So if I’m being authentic with myself, I also have to understand that it seems like something is not looking right. I’m not feeling [any] gratitude towards a lot of things that I should feel grateful for. I need to feel happy with happy occasions in my life or whatever I have around me. So toxic positivity is, of course, when I am having a lot of negative emotions but yet forcing myself to feel positive in this authenticity, I’m taking responsibility and ownership of my negative emotions and I’m doing something about it.

AB: Now. When you’re going through a negative emotion, depending on the severity of the situation, like you’ve just said to us, would you set yourself a time frame that it’s okay to grieve  for a month, for a year, for two months, for two weeks, for a day, depending on the severity. And then I’ll be fine. You see all kinds of methods that people recommend. I’ve had people, psych therapists say grieve, play a sad song and grieve to it every day. So you get out your emotions, someone else actually scheduled in their grieving time.

SH: Everyone is wired differently. Everyone’s resources are different. Some people who come to me don’t have resources; they don’t have healthy human beings around them or healthy people to help them recognise their symptoms. So, [the] best option is to get an assessment with a mental health expert who will first understand the severity of your trauma. See, if a person comes to me and has undergone trauma for many, many years, it’s going to be a little difficult for that person to process and come out of the trauma. If it’s a death, maybe three to four months. But if unsure symptoms are worsening, then medical help is required. But [it] totally depends on the luck of the person who’s around them. What is the support system? Say a person comes to me who has a very good, healthy family. They come out of the trauma very easily. We have another person who doesn’t have that healthy network. It depends totally on the severity of the negative experience one has had. So, for example, if a client comes to me and says, “Hey, I had a huge fight with a friend of mine, it is a shock to the nervous system. It was not expected.” Maybe I will tell my client to give it two or three days. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how you feel. Maybe betrayed anger. So the person identifies emotions. So usually, in these cases, because this is a mild to moderate negative experience, the person should come out in a week’s time. The more severe the trauma… For example, say I had a client that day, and she had the death of her mother, and she said, “How much time am I going to take?” Maybe three months, maybe four months. And with the help of the resources that we are putting in front of her, or she’s also having access to…

AB: So can you give us a little tool that you would give them, as an example? Not everyone can afford therapy, right? 

SH: There are a lot of checklist inventories for the Depression Scale, and [from] mild depression to moderate and severe [depression]. Go and do that Mild Depression Inventory or Anxiety Inventory online. And if you think the symptoms are getting moderate to severe in the coming weeks or months, then mental health help is required. Even if you can’t afford [it], there are many mental health professionals who work with less money or pro-bono. You can still get help. Don’t sit on the symptoms. So these depression or anxiety inventories are easily accessible online, free of cost, and [on] authentic websites. So please go and check that; even [the] PTSD scale, by the way, is available online.

AB: It’s a normal life situation that we all go through, but someone is trying to deal with it. Can you give us a little tool that they can use?

SH: For that? You don’t require an inventory. All I suggest is [that you] journal your thoughts. All I suggest is a little breathwork. Calm your nervous system down with whomever you’re sharing an authentic bond with. Tell them that you want to share the space with them. Don’t sit on your emotions, because in three days the brain is going to process them and you’re going to feel much better.

AB: That’s very helpful Seema… journal your thoughts, do some breathwork and talk to somebody. Talk to someone who you trust.

SH: Yes, I will add a very valuable input here as well. In my research, I’ve seen that taking your vitamins on time [and] doing self-care helps you deal with the symptoms better when [a] negative experience occurs. So for me, my self-care will be going for a walk or maybe anywhere in the garden or a park. Taking vitamins like B12 and D3 really helps support mental health. Magnesium is a holy grail. Taking 200 mg of magnesium every day when you’re going through any kind of negative experience really helps. Do it under medical supervision, ofcourse, but it really helps. That’s important.

AB: And I also wanted to ask you something quite topical. So the world is going through a crazy time, right? There’s so much uncertainty about jobs, and people are trying desperately to keep their jobs. So even if they’re going through something personally, mentally, they’re feeling emotionally unbalanced. A lot of people won’t take time off about it. They won’t do anything about it. Can you suggest something that will help them? And also, do you know if organisations are doing anything to help because they just put up this positive front?

SH: I think somewhere awareness, like your podcast is doing, and watching more podcasts about how to handle emotions is a warm welcome for these kinds of people. Because when I hear that other people are also going through something similar, the first basic question I get in my practice is, “Oh, is this normal? Is it normal to go through this? Is it normal? Do you have other clients as well?” Mostly, when I’m asked this question, I say, yeah, it’s absolutely normal. The feeling that I’m going through something negative makes me not normal, and that’s scary. So the request is to read a few books on mental health and watch podcasts like this to understand that being positive all the time is, in fact, not healthy. It’s okay to feel negative sometimes. When talking to people who have undergone some kind of depression or anxiety— and usually you stumble upon these people and think, oh, she was going through that. Pick up the phone and call. I had a client who did that. She called up someone who lost a job, and she said, “How did you feel?” And her feelings matched. And she was like, I felt so validated. She felt the same feeling. So these kinds of things really help. Other than the internal work that we both discussed about. All this is like stepping out in the external world and seeing that, okay, everybody is going through something. I’m not alone. That’s the feeling we want to give people.

AB: Okay, so now that brings us very nicely to positive action. Talk to us about how to move from positive thinking to positive action.

SH: For me, positive action is something that’s consistent. Like I said, the first step is self awareness. Like, I’m very aware of my feelings and emotions. Have I picked up learning helplessness from someone in my family? Maybe my aunt or my mum, my Bua or my Chachi, whoever. Getting rid of that learned helplessness is a positive action for me. Second thing, like I said, self care is positive action for me. Where I have set up a routine or most clients are inconsistent in their routine. So emotional eating is something. High levels of sugar is going to dysregulate your system and then your coping methods to deal with any experience, negative experience or traumatic experience is going to be difficult. So a lot of my clients’ first checklist inventory is, are you having a lot of sugar? Yes. So stop having that extra white sugar. Stop having that extra carb every day. Without fail, spend ten minutes in silence. And many people can’t do that. Why? Because they’re scared to tap into their emotions. What if the negative emotions come up? Let it come up. It’s not going to harm you. That’s the positive action. Listen to music. Music has a rhythm that matches our heartbeats. Listen to any mantra, maybe Gayatri mantra, Hanuman chalisa… Anything that brings you peace is a positive action. While going for a walk, listen to a podcast. That’s positive action for me. We all feel and we have someone who gives that safety to us. Most people lack safety. Remember that. Going and talking to that person who makes me feel safe is a positive action for me. So these are the few tips, and if you can afford it, please take help of a therapist who can guide you in this process.

AB: Thank you for that. So I want to get into something that we touched on earlier. If someone loses a job, you can look for another job. But there are some situations in life which are very, very hard. And I’ve seen people in these situations where, I mean, really, you want to help them, your heart goes out to them. When people lose, I don’t know, a young child or something like that, these very drastic situations, what kind of positive action can you recommend for them? Literally they’ve gone numb and sometimes they’re numb for years.

SH: Because I’m a trauma expert, I deal with severe trauma in my clinic. And what I tell people is [that] when the relatives come with my clients, they’re like, “When is she going to be all right? When is she going to come out of it? When is she going to snap out of this?” I’m talking about someone who has lost a child or, say, a job. And not getting a job for two years is also a trauma for me. What I tell my clients is to not jump into the therapy process very soon. Give time for the shock to register. Tell your therapist or whoever is putting the shock absorbers in you. So holding space for someone when they’re grieving is very important. The problem [is that] we all tell people, “snap out of it quickly. Death happens to everyone.” Look at the person who’s not even registering what you’re saying. I would not give [an] example of someone losing their child. For the person who has lost a child and who’s coming to me, for her, her child was very important? She’s not concerned about someone’s health [or] death. So the timing is very important. When we integrate examples like this, this is what I’m trying to tell you. Time is very important. The more time you give for the person to heal, of course, making sure that they’re not going into extreme depression, the more we are going to keep that structure in therapy. Or even if a person is not coming for therapy, if the person is going into severe depression, like I said, you have to see the symptoms online and do something about it. I cannot do my tooth surgery. I have to go to the dentist. Same way, [I have] to take help. If it’s a severe trauma, don’t tell the person to come out and expect them to have a normal life.

AB: Thank you. So Seema, at the end of every session, we do a rapid fire round to summarise the chat very quickly. So, an exercise that can help people deal with negative emotions in a healthy way.

SH: For me, that would be connecting with my own self and building my attachment to myself— becomes very strong. Once my attachment to myself becomes very strong, I can deal with everything in life.

AB: One thing a person can do to prevent toxic positivity

SH: By not being with people who are toxically positive, who only talk positive and positive all the time and not believing them completely. Put your filters.

AB: And the last very important question, which actually summarises our whole chat. What is the difference between toxic and healthy positivity?

SH: Okay, very simple. Toxic positivity [occurs] in times of grieving, loss, or even [a] negative experience. I know from my soul that I am not addressing my real emotion, but just to show the world, and because I’m conditioned, I’m parroting positive statements— that is toxic positivity. But my positive statement is my statement that I say every day, but at the same time, I’m honouring my negative emotions. And that is the time I’m not talking positively. I honour my emotions, and I come back to the layer of my positive emotions. Can you see the difference here? There is no scope for negativity at all. I’m not honouring anything. I’m just parroting; I’m not feeling it. This positive statement—you actually feel the positive statements in your body at a cellular level—is a very good indicator. Somatic therapy is a very good indicator of your negative and positive emotions. That’s the difference.

AB: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Seema Hingorrany, for taking the time to give us all these wonderful and powerful insights.

SH: Most welcome and thank you.

AB: Thank you to my listeners. I hope you learned something new and I hope we brought you a little closer to leading a healthier, happier life. If you enjoyed this podcast, please do press like, and please encourage your friends and family to subscribe to it. And very importantly, I would love to hear from you. Please do write to me about any topic suggestions you have or any questions in general. My email address is: Thank you for being here, and we’ll see you next week.