Positivity and Negativity – When is it Toxic and When is it Healthy?

A white background image. In the centre a set of balancing scales, the left a light orange "positivity" and the right a dark orange "negativity". Beneath reads: Both are needed in balance, it's finding that balance that is the hard part...

Intention Statement
Before I start this post, I just wanted to set the intention, tone, or whatever you would like to call it. 

I am writing this as an Autistic woman who has had very severe anxiety in the past. It’s now quite well handled, but I still get some severe rumination and other annoying anxiety issues.

This post is not intended to dismiss, discredit or belittle anyone’s experiences. It is not an “it’s just simple, stop and you’ll be ok” post either.

The entire aim is to discuss positivity and negativity, both healthy and negative, from my personal experiences, in the hope it will inform and support others out there.  

Toxic or Healthy?

A few years ago, one of my staff, in a frustrated moment, accused me of perpetrating “toxic positivity” on a regular basis. I had to take a few days on that comment to really consider what the term actually meant and was I doing it? I did a lot of interesting reading (and soul searching) and thankfully came to the conclusion I wasn’t being “toxic”, but I was a consistently positive influence around people who were struggling and started to take that in the wrong way (which I entirely understand).

I think the best way to reduce this is to say:

Toxic = Negative long-term effects
Healthy = Positive long-term effects

At the time, things can feel or be meant in a “healthy” way but are actually toxic because they lead to long-term issues. The best example here is the “think happy thoughts” toxic positivity I’d imagine most of us have received at some point. Yes, in the short term, those “happy thoughts” will help but will inevitably lead to long-term issues because the route cause isn’t dealt with.


Positivity

It can be hard to separate toxic and healthy positivity. 

Let’s try and break it down with an example:

As you may have read in my last post, I have POTS. It’s always a struggle, and no matter what I do, it will always “flare up” at inconvenient moments. The last time was Friday (a few days ago). I woke up at 6am as usual, with my normal routine in place for going to the gym, getting breakfast, and being at my desk in my office ready for work at 9am.

I was up at 6am, I do my bed exercises (I have to do certain things to raise my blood pressure to safely get up), I sit up, aannnddd the room slides away from me. I do some more exercises, try again, room slides. This goes on for about 30mins until I have to accept that I am not regulating my blood pressure today. I managed to crawl (yes, hands and knees) into my study, get to my desk chair, and do my blood pressure and other observations. Yep, everything is very off.

So let’s look at this from both the toxic and negative positivity angles.

If I were to be toxic about my positivity, I would tell myself to get on with it. I would think I need to just think positive, get up and go to the gym, that’ll solve it! What would happen is I would be attempting to ignore the issue itself, dismiss it out of hand, and try to steam ahead using just “happy thoughts”. If I had done that, I would probably have made it to the gym and done a short walk before giving up, I would have made it to the office and worked there all day, but I can guarantee you I would have been bedridden all this weekend.

What I actually did, was healthy positivity. 

I sat in my chair, feeling like poop, looking at the numbers on this blood pressure machine that should not both be double figures (which means low blood pressure) and thought about what was best for me. I did tell myself the world wasn’t ending, and that I would get through it, and other such positive thoughts because those on their own are not toxic. The toxic part is dismissing the feelings and problems that have arisen. I cancelled my gym visit, I told the office I would work from home, I drank a very large glass of rehydration salts (disgusting), and I took my time.

I think the more common example though is when you have someone who is anxious, depressed, or struggling with some other mental health condition.

Some comes up with their “think happy thoughts” mentality, that “it’s not that bad, “other people have it worse than you” and “what do you have to feel down about”. This is toxic, this is dismissive of the person’s experiences and painting that person as just being negative.

Having experienced this a lot, it can be hard to see when someone’s positivity is healthy. People can accept and value your mental health difficulties and offer you positivity; “You’re so anxious/depressed you haven’t eaten all day? That sounds really difficult, on the bright side, maybe we could order some takeout?” (acknowledging and empathising with the situation whilst offering a positive spin). 

I’m sure you will join me in a collective groan at the “Have you tried yoga” people, and I find that a hard one to categorise. They could be trying to dismiss you with a “do this, and you’ll be fine” statement, or they could be trying to offer a constructive way to feel better. It’s hard to know people’s intentions at the best of times.

I think circling back to my original employee’s comment, I can see why they would think I had toxic positive traits. Things go sideways in the charity all the time, just like in any other charity or business. People go off sick, you lose bids for funds, can’t help as many people as you would like, etc. and on the surface I support that person saw me “thinking happy thoughts” but what I was really doing was accepting the situation, looking for a solution and trying to say as positive as reasonable because I know from my own past experience I can cycle into some very toxic negativity…

Negativity

There is such a thing as healthy negativity. It’s what keeps us safe, realistic, and grounded.

For example: If someone we know, who we considered a friend, is taking advantage of us. They do the behaviour, we are displeased, they apologise, rinse and repeat. It’s a healthy level of negativity to assume that, after a few times in that cycle, they are not going to change. That is realistic and is protecting you.

If you have had shocking through to traumatic experiences in certain services, you are going to be negative about that. Again, this serves you well, it’s protecting you. Life is about balance, so you’re going to be negative about things sometimes, and that is ok.

Toxic negativity, on the other hand, is not.

There are lots of descriptions of toxic negativity on the internet, but I’d like to look at it as internal (affecting your thought processes) and external (when it starts affecting others).

 I am definitely guilty of the internal type, that negativity that just snowballs into catastrophic potential outcomes. You know the type? the “the supermarket has stopped selling my favourite snack therefore, everyone hates me” type. I used to have this a lot when my POTS was very bad and very unmanaged. I could barely get out of bed and to the sofa without vomiting or fainting. I would have those thoughts like “I will never get better, this is my existence, always like this, no one wants a friend who is sick, my partner will leave me” and on and on it would go.

I know from experience, they are not easy to stop… like your full shopping trolley rolling off down the carpark! 

I have spent years working on those thoughts, slowly but surely moving them to a place of acceptance. “Yes, I am bedbound, but it may not be forever”, “I know I wanted to go to the gym, but if I can do one extra lap of the garden today, I will have succeeded”

There are so many tools out there for working on these types of thoughts, I can’t say what will work for you, but there are some websites like Psychology Tools that could help.

External toxic negativity is something you need to be very careful of in yourself and other people. This is where those thoughts become projected out at other people. Where you are the “victim” in everything, regardless of how many people are trying to support you. Where you take zero responsibility for the situation when you are at fault in some way.

I’m sure we’ve all had those friends who are all about the drama, that everything is a battle? They complain no one likes them, so you invite them to an event, that they then complain they are only invited to because they said no one likes them. That anything you try to do to support them is wrong, or have an ulterior motive? That’s toxic negativity, and it’s a really hard one.

If you’re receiving this from another person, it’s really hard to help, because as we’ve outlined, everything you do will be wrong. All you can do is offer to be there for them to support them when they want to come out of that cycle. It won’t be easy, or quick, but it’s doable.

If you are the person in that cycle yourself, that is also very difficult. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re convinced no one likes you, so you complain about that constantly to the point no one likes you due to how negative you are. Your bad experiences in the past mean that you feel a victim in every situation without realising that people are there to support you. 

I have been here as well. I was having a mental breakdown many years ago and I felt let down by everyone and every service to the point I was doing these very toxic traits. I was extremely lucky that I had people in my life who were patient and kept on supporting me through it. Introspection (looking inside and understanding your emotions) doesn’t come easy to me, like many Autistic people, so it took a lot of time and work on my part.

It is also this horrible fine line because I was in a mental health crisis, I was ill and was acting out, but at the same time, my words and actions were abusive to other people around me.

Conclusion

This image is top half green and the bottom half red, split horizontally through the middle. There are two drawings of heads in the centre of the image facing each other. The left has a cross in the brain to depict negativity. The right head has a heart in the brain to depict positivity. The top green half of the image reads "Healthy - supportive long-term effects, Considerate of feelings/experiences, Accepting situations as they are, and working with them not against them". The bottom red half of the image reads "Toxic - No long term supportive effects, Not considering feelings/experiences,Wanting things a certain way regardless of others"

As I said at the beginning, this post was not intended with judgement to anyone’s experiences or conditions but a thought-provoking piece on how positivity and negativity can be both healthy and toxic.

I feel once we understand the difference, we can defend ourselves better from the toxic traits of others and ourselves, as well as promote healthy traits in others and ourselves.

Life is about balance, and we all need to accept that in order to support each other in the future 🙂

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