Don’t worry, you’ll find something else,’ I reassured my friend. ‘This is the best thing that could have happened, you hated that job.’
My friend opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. I kept going: ‘At least John still has work, you still have a roof over your head.’
She nodded but there were tears in her eyes as she said she had to go.
As soon as we hung up our video call I knew I’d done the worst thing: instead of listening to how scared and sad she was, I had made my friend feel she was not allowed to feel bad about being made redundant from her job of eight years.
I had showered her in something that’s recently been dubbed ‘toxic positivity’.
Marianne Power explores the dangers of suppressing our feelings, as Dr Dean Burnett writes about ‘toxic positivity’ (file image)
Dr Dean Burnett, author of best- selling book The Happy Brain, wrote about it after his otherwise healthy 58-year-old father contracted Covid-19 in March.
‘When he became ill and ended up on a ventilator, I had a surprising number of people assure me, promise me, that “he’ll be fine”, or “he’ll get through this”. He didn’t, though. He died.
‘Not one of them rang to say they were wrong. Yes, I’m sad and angry about it. And I have every right to be.’
‘Toxic positivity,’ wrote Dr Burnett, ‘is when positivity ignores reality. It’s when people insist on themselves and others being happy, when the situation fully justifies the opposite.
‘There’s a modern idea that happiness should be our default state, and if we aren’t happy then something is wrong. It’s nonsense . . . the brain doesn’t work like that.’
I agree — and, as the country heads into a new round of Covid restrictions, I think it’s crucial we fight back against this spreading syndrome.
In lockdown the first time around, we were told it was the perfect time to write a book! Bake bread! Get fit! Learn a language! To treat what was happening as an opportunity.
But the message is a dangerous one. David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, says the world is going through a collective bereavement. Even if you have not lost a loved one, we are grieving our normal lives and sense of safety.
David Kessler who is one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, said we tell ourselves that we're not allowed to feel sad because other people have it much worse (file image)
Yet, he adds: ‘One unfortunate by-product of the self-help movement is that we try to squash our negative feelings. We tell ourselves we are not allowed to feel sad because other people have it much worse.’
When Covid first emerged, I felt scared. Would we have enough food in the supermarkets? How many people would die? And while I usually love living alone, the pandemic made me feel a new loneliness.
I felt at times like I didn’t exist. But then I read articles about people sleeping on the streets and nurses dying, and told myself I had no right to be scared or lonely. I felt ashamed of feeling down.
As a result, I stopped myself from calling friends in case I seemed too miserable. I didn’t want to take up their time. The result was that I compounded my feelings.
Denying our emotions has been linked to heart disease
I suspect my attitude is a hangover from years spent reading self-help books, well-meaning tomes that have taught me the only secret to happiness is to think more ‘positively’.
Following their suggestions, I have tried all sorts of positive thinking tricks, like walking around my local park repeating affirmations such as ‘I am a money magnet’ — when really I was in debt — or pinging an elastic band on my wrist every time I had a negative thought in order to try to be happy.
I cringe when I remember once telling a friend that ‘it was all happening perfectly!’ after she told me her marriage of 20 years was over, because that was a slogan repeated in the book I was reading that month.
At first, she looked as if I had slapped her — and then she looked as if she wanted to slap me.
As well as making me a bad friend, this tyranny of positive thinking made me unhappy.
Research claims that bereaved people who try not to feel their grief take longer to recover (file image)
I felt like I was failing, because I didn’t feel like a cross between Buddha and Beyonce every day. The happier I tried to be, the less happy I was.
Research has shown that suppressing our real feelings is not good for our mental or physical wellbeing. Denying our emotions has been linked to heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.
What’s more, studies demonstrate that when people who have low self-esteem are forced to repeat positive ‘affirmations’ they feel worse.
It causes more stress and even lower self-esteem.
Research has also shown that bereaved people who try not to feel their grief take longer to recover.
Toxic positivity ignores the fact that all emotions have a purpose. Fear, for example, is there to make us alert to danger.
A person who is the victim of domestic abuse does not need to think positively, she needs to get out. And if your house is burning down, focusing on how lovely and warm it is can kill you. Loneliness is not something to be numbed with Netflix, it’s a sign we need to reach out to somebody. Positive thinking can stop us from taking the action we need to take.
In one experiment, when a group of dehydrated people were asked to visualise a glass of water they experienced a decline in energy levels.
David Kessler said many of us worry about being overwhelmed by our negative feelings, however they move on quite quickly if we allow ourselves to feel them (file image)
Imagining their goal seemed to deprive them of their get-up-and-go. In other words, positive thinking can actually make us less effective.
Of course, there’s a balance to be found. While being a Pollyanna might do us harm, nobody wants to be the misery guts moaning that the end is nigh.
The challenge is to find a balance between toxic positivity and helpful positivity.
How to do it? First of all, we really need to acknowledge our more difficult feelings. Are you sad? Frustrated? ‘When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you,’ says Kessler.
He says many of us worry that if we admit to negative feelings, we’ll be overwhelmed by them. In fact, however, allowing ourselves to actually feel them will mean they move on quite quickly.
If you have the kind of brain that wants to imagine doom and gloom, that’s fine, too.
Imagine the very worst case scenario (your parents getting sick, losing your home) and figure out what you’d do if that happened. Now, to balance it, imagine the best case scenario (everyone is fine and your work flourishes).
The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece believed doing this robs the future of its anxiety-producing power — once you’ve figured out what you’d do in a disaster, what is there to worry about?
When things do get tough, Kessler adds that it can help to let go of what you can’t control. ‘What your neighbour is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.’
Finally, be compassionate to yourself and others. We are all struggling right now, so try to forgive less-than-charming behaviours in yourself and in others, too.
Instead of trying to get someone to snap out of it, you will then be able to listen and empathise, which is all we really want when we are down.
I called my friend back, by the way. I apologised for trying to cheer her up when she’d been made redundant, and told her it was normal to feel scared and angry.
She cried and ranted. ‘That’s OK,’ I said. ‘You’ve lost your job, you’re allowed to feel bad.’
She actually laughed. ‘It’s weird, but hearing that makes me feel better,’ she said.