The down side to the bright side

Droughts, fires, floods, a mouse plague and a global pandemic. These challenges of almost biblical proportions have affected many of us in varying ways in the past few years.

Lee Longmire and her husband Geoff, who run a farming enterprise in rural NSW, have experienced all of them. Yet when she posts online about what life is like for her in these difficult times, responses such as “Stay positive!” tend to be the default.

But, says Longmire, the pep talk often has the opposite effect.

“I know people are well-intentioned with this sort of rote response,” she tells Body+Soul. “But it’s like people think they can pass on a well-worn platitude, and that’s their job done.”

Her experience begs the question: is society’s reliance on messages of excessive positivity actually leading us to deny the full spectrum of human emotions – and with it, a healthy dose of reality?

Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in helping clients understand how behaviour is changing in the digital age, tells Body+Soul that this tendency – let’s call it “toxic positivity” – has spread fast, particularly on social media.

When posts regarding lockdown or uncertainty about the future are met with a swarm of “You’ve got this”-style responses, she warns that something more unwittingly sinister is at play.

“We don’t have the mental-health literacy to know how to go deeper and hold space for people who are suffering,” she explains.

A more helpful response may be something like, “It’s valid to feel upset about this. I’m here if you need to vent.”

It’s a triple whammy in that it opens up dialogue, recognises that all emotions are valid and invites further discussion.

“I’m a big fan of [direct messaging] in response to a post where we can see a friend is struggling,” Brewer says. “It feels more private and the poster may then reply with more vulnerability than they would publicly.”

Social media can also become a platform for behaviour that Brewer calls “performative coping”; a place where the perfectly staged photo of a smiling parent helping their child complete their online learning masks what is really going on.

“We generally don’t post what that scenario may really look like, with the parent hiding in their bathroom in tears so they can take an important work call without being interrupted,” she says.

Mindset coach Ben Crowe’s famous clients include sports stars such as Ash Barty and Andre Agassi, as well as high-profile political leaders and CEOs.

You may expect his work to preach the power of positive thinking, yet as Crowe explains to Body+Soul, we can’t selectively choose our emotions.

In fact, he argues, “Being in denial about how you really feel will come back to bite you in the bum. Our greatest growth comes from our darkest times; in that moment there is the opportunity for curiosity. By being honest with ourselves when we are struggling we can then move to ‘What will I do next?’ We can turn adversities into possibilities.”

By acknowledging and accepting our emotions, we can then work through them. “I can tell you that all the most successful and fulfilled people I’ve met have an appetite for the truth,” Crowe says.

“They will ask themselves, ‘What am I in denial of?’”

The great irony is that despite our fears that the world will reject us if we express our less-positive emotions, it is our imperfections that ultimately connect us to others.

“Think about your closest relationships,” Crowe suggests. “It’s the tears, the self-deprecating humour and the sharing of stories of shame that draw us in and keep us close.”

Longmire has found that when she counters fairly meaningless platitudes with a response explaining things really aren’t so simply fixed, some commenters then lean in, while others double down with more saccharine slogans or simply go quiet.

Still, she says, “Gently moving the conversation towards a more authentic space is a great way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff.”

What’s the difference between a “bad day” and genuine mental illness?

Psychologist Meredith Fuller says that “a bad day” becomes a bigger problem when it happens frequently over a long period of time.

“Sometimes we feel a bit sad or down, but if it drags on, that’s a red flag,” she says.

Consider seeking professional help if:

  • Your friends are worried about you.
    “People may be commenting or observing signs that you’re in denial, and showing their concern.”
  • Your self-care starts to slip.
    “Has it affected your sleep or your appetite? Is how you’re feeling impacting the way you get on with normal life?”
  • You don’t find joy in things that used to make you happy.
    “If you’re finding it hard to resume normal activities that gave you pleasure – hobbies, seeing friends – that’s telling you something needs to be addressed.”

This was originally published by Body+Soul nationally.