In Part 1 I spoke about Positivity, what it is, and where it’s been going wrong. Now I want to explore more deeply to further identify what is Toxic vs what is Genuine and where we often lose the sight of constructive positivity or negativity.
But before that, I want to clarify that there are two types of “negative” I refer to in this article (which should be obvious in context!):
- The concept of negative as “not being positive”
- Something that is actually damaging to us
Firstly, I want to look at why people might be negative – and to point out that it is almost impossible to be 100% positive or negative all the time, so we should probably stop blanket-accusing people of this. It’s a very inaccurate and unhelpful habit which can reinforce problems.
There is no denying that toxic negativity is vampiric. No wonder we try to avoid it! Sometimes people are negative to harass, to bully, to compete, to divert, to assert power or control; people can be negative through personality trait or experience. Some people are cynical to a degree where they impact getting things done. Sometimes people are negative as a result of being a jobsworth, or from a limited, rigid mindset that sees little growth. Negativity is also habit forming, and there is a perverse pleasure to always picking the negative path – at least you won’t be disappointed, right? It’s very hard to be motivated when you think like this exclusively.
All of this is negative negatives, and we all know how draining it can be. But I want to expand on negatives that can actually be positives, ignored to our detriment and damage, and also highlight how disturbing and damaging it is to invalidate valid negativity.
Some “negativity” is actually simple constructive criticism. So how much of what’s being labelled negative is toxic? Perhaps not as much as we think. When beneficial information to resolve genuine issues is automatically ignored because it isn’t positive, problems increase. An attitude of relentless “only provide solutions, not problems, be positive” no matter what is not always realistic or pragmatic.
Something else to also bear in mind is that all of this can depend on whether people are also trying to sell stuff. Negativity cuts through falsely positive bullshit and is often straight-speaking. Sales pitches, manipulations, and cons are almost universally positioned as positive. People say they value straight-shooters, but most of us don’t like anything invalidating a positive message. This becomes a rabbit hole of whether positives are really negatives and vice versa, so ask yourself when using or confronted with either:
Are they genuine, constructive, meaningful and appropriate? If so, chances are they could be valid, and you should pay attention and not just dismiss them.
So now we’ve had a think about that, let’s look at several ways positives can actually be negative when out of context or balance.
Belief in yourself
It is an amazing realisation to believe in ourselves – to realise that we are capable of so much more than we limit ourselves to. Self-limiting beliefs are responsible for much of the dissatisfaction we may feel, or our apparent inability to achieve things.
But we also have to acknowledge true limitations, and the fact we do not control every single aspect of our lives.
It is as much of a lie to tell ourselves we are totally limit-free as it is to tell ourselves we are too limited.
The tendency of humans to not find balance and veer between the two means we form very destructive patterns and imbalances (more on how we form mental patterns and make decisions here in The Decisive Patterns of Business).
So how can unlimited self-belief be harmful?
Let me ask you a question: If you are told you can never fail if you believe hard enough in yourself – that you can do anything – and you believe that truly; strive, and do everything you can to achieve it; and for whatever reason (life decisions, chance events outside your control), you just don’t achieve what you have set yourself, no matter how hard you try…
Who will you blame?
Being sold this personal maxim constantly means that if we fail, we are likely to believe we are at fault, that we just didn’t believe hard enough. And although I say there is no failure, only feedback, and indeed speak about failure being necessary for learning, growth, and success, here it is often taken as abject failure; not a lesson, but a lessening.
And that’s fundamentally not right. Let me explain.
Self-belief cannot be rigidly applied to everything in life. For every incredible story, every driven hero of mine who has achieved incredible things against the odds – Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example – there are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands that had the same drive and determination, but didn’t get quite the same opportunities at the same time, whose contexts were just different.
For instance, by telling schoolchildren they literally cannot fail and removing fails from exams, we set unrealistic self-belief and expectations for the real world, where failure is an inevitable lesson.
Your personal drive and belief are incredibly powerful; never believe I am not supporting that. Have that goal; use that drive. Be inspired! Removing limiting self-beliefs allows you to achieve your full potential, but that is not the same as being able to literally do anything, and I think this is an important distinction.
For example – you only have to look at the diminishing returns of the fastest sprinters in the world, Usain Bolt and his ilk, to know that there is a literal human limit to what can be achieved. He ran 100m in 9.58 seconds, achieving a peak speed of almost 28mph, after years of incredibly intensive training. Men who are likewise ludicrously fast (many of whom have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, so are in a way superhuman) have come close to this, although this record stands out from even these scores, but most of them are mere milliseconds apart. So to remove self-limits and say you will train and one day compete, equal, or even beat Usain’s record may be vanishingly small, but it’s something you can still possibly achieve if you start from the right context.
But you also have to be realistic. If you say you will, as a baseline human, beat an 8 second 100m world record, it is inhumanly unlikely. Add to that the fact that the people who get to this level have decades of training, manage to avoid career-ending injury, have superior genetics for this event, and all have different context in life for many of us – they were the best of the best, naturally in most cases, to even begin training – and you can see how it’s just not possible for nearly anyone to say only self-belief stands between them and Usain’s record. A whole range of factors, including serendipity, are involved.
We must all acknowledge that sometimes, we simply can’t close that gap between dream and reality. Life is not a level playing field, and treating it as if it is is wrong. Perhaps chance, or genetics, or a situation stops you doing what you want to the degree you wish to. Not everyone is equally unconstrained by choices. The people who achieve their perfect dream may be driven, excellent at seeing opportunity, or have the means to make a good start, but that doesn’t mean they would still achieve it in another context.
This is where serendipity and complexity align; opportunities and context may exist for one driven, talented person that simply don’t for another who is equally so. In Cynefin, you realise that finding new emergent paths to success can deliver even better, more achievable goals than the original perhaps unattainable one. I feel very uncomfortable when I see the focus on the people who have achieved something amazing portrayed as “this would be you if you only believed in yourself enough”. Very often, their story is incredible, inspiring, against all odds, and they are amazing people – but there is more to it than just human spirit. It is wrong to simply say that someone in a different context who doesn’t achieve it is always less driven, discerning, or capable. They are not automatically a failure.
Yet that is exactly what we tell people when all they hear is “believe enough, and you can do anything“. It may incorrectly suggest that those who didn’t achieve simply didn’t want it as much.
We need to be super careful of language here. These are true:
Believe in yourself enough, and you can reach your full potential.
We can achieve much more than we believe. We have not failed if we don’t achieve something perfectly.
But this is not:
Believe in yourself enough, and you can do anything.
How are we measuring success? Who do we punish when we can’t achieve it? Who controls this? Dreams and reality must match up at least a little to be achievable.
Speaking of what’s within our control:
Positivity and Control
I constantly say humans polarise very easily. I often here there’s no point trying to do things as we have no control, or conversely we have complete control over our destinies. We also often create false causal links – for example, that anything not intensively positive must be negative. The truth, as usual, lies in a fluctuating balance somewhere between the two.
I think we need to accept two things:
- We can positively control much more than we often realise (Believe in yourself!)
- Some things we simply can’t control, and that’s not necessarily negative (Don’t believe in yourself exclusively and unrealistically!)
Bruce Lee said that we have a choice; that being constructively positive is how we begin to make changes, and he is absolutely right. I do this in my own life, and it’s incredibly powerful. But we also can’t control everything in our lives, and the myth we can prevents us from growing and learning properly at best, and damages our mental health at worst. As he says, it’s how we begin.
In this video, Derren Brown makes some great points (highly recommended watch):
It reinforces my points below on happiness, positivity, and optimism not being conflated.
I particularly like his thoughts on why so many of us get it wrong. How much of what we acquire to be happy is actually only to impress other people and project positivity for their benefit? What is our aim, and personal measure, of what happiness means?
You could also define positivity more as:
Instead of wanting what we don’t have, shifting our desires so we want what we already have is truly positive.
He also references the Stoics, and the idea that:
…there are things in your life that you are in control of, and there are things in your life you aren’t in control of; and the only things you are really in control of are your thoughts and your actions.
Everything else is subject to outside influence. What other people do, think, how they act, what happens to them, what the world does to all of you, is outside your sphere of control. You may or may not influence it; but influence is not control, and in an age of “influencers” it’s important to remember this.
So in this context, positivity can simply mean a pragmatic decision that everything you cannot control is ok – not good, not bad, but just there – because you simply can’t control it. And you have to let that sense sink in; mere words are not enough for comprehension. Constructively change yourself positively, but don’t lose sight of reality.
Positivity, Optimism, Happiness, Fulfillment
It is extremely important to differentiate between these, more than ever now we’re bombarded with a conflation of them constantly through social media and work.
We’ve looked at what Positivity is; Optimism, on the other hand, is more concerned with not being worried about the negatives in a situation, a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable, regardless of evidence. Optimism is usually a trait where you hope things will always work out well, where positivity is a choice. Optimism may then be responsible for blindness to realities or problems, because it’s often a refusal to accept they matter – or even exist.
Happiness, on the other hand, can come from enjoying short-term experience, or long-term fulfillment/satisfaction (I’m defining happiness fairly simply here). In Derren’s video he mentions Daniel Kahneman speaking of the experiencing self and the remembering self: if you are given a choice between doing something really fun or doing something meaningful, which one would you say would make you happier?
Many people will often pick the fun activity because the experiencer will be catered to at the time. But the rememberer will look back at the meaningful activity instead, and the chances are you will keep more of a profound, deep sense of happiness from that; in other words, you are more likely to find real fulfillment.
Another way to consider it is short-term gain requires a constant re-buzz, whereas long-term satisfaction sustains you.
Ask yourself; are you being optimistic, genuinely positive, or toxically positive to achieve happiness – and which of these really fulfills you?
The conflation of these terms and our lack of awareness of these two selves shows most of us have a very poor understanding of what really fulfills us a lot of the time; and until we experience something traumatic enough to force a reframe outside our set mental patterns, we probably won’t gain a new perspective.
Trying to fulfill ourselves by “patching” or “hacking” with quick quotes and memes is anywhere near as useful as a genuine depth-of-character change. That short dose of inspiration doesn’t last, but a profound memory does.
But what about expectations around being positive?
Societal and business demands for Yes! Can-Do! and other immediate “positives”
This is something we do a lot. Removing significance from everything non-positive as simply “negative” is profoundly damaging, and these demands from establishments or other people can become quickly ingrained. They ignore reality, and tie straight into the short-term fulfillment and experiencing self mentioned above. They invalidate any concerns or emotions, and demand intrinsic optimism regardless of consequent cost. Once you set this as a pattern, like any other habit humans create, it’s hard to break.
I made a video on the “can-do” attitude a few months ago:
And again, in context, the concept of can-do and not being immediately negative is great – it gives clients confidence, it sets initial goals, and much more. But too often we see can-do as a substitute for able-to-do. It’s not enough to just say yes if you can’t achieve things. That’s not positive; it’s disingenuous (and from 22 years in DevOps, it’s something I have seen an awful lot in tech!).
A short story: I was once asked to write a technical presales proposal for a current customer; my first draft was very technical and not dressed up. I was told it was too negative, and they wouldn’t buy it – which is fine, you have to highlight benefits. So I rewrote it. It was returned again. I was to remove anything even remotely negative, meaning that any realistic cautions would be ignored. I reluctantly complied, objecting on the grounds that proposing this just to get a sale would mean an implementation standing an unacceptably high risk of falling over within 3 months. I was told we’d worry about it then and to just fulfill it now, and also to rewrite again and remove anything even neutral.
At this point, it seemed ridiculous – to sound positive enough to get a quick sale, a technical consultant was being asked to essentially write a marketing document which was false and high-risk to the solution and the long-term reputation of the company (also, since I would implement it as well, I stood a high chance of being blamed when it almost inevitably fell over). This is a great example of toxic business positivity. There was no balance, realism, or care; it was false-positive to achieve a short-term, selfish singular goal.
There is no point in saying yes to everything you’re asked in life, because you simply can’t deliver it all.
Yes-ing is also a problem internally for leadership because it leads to sycophancy and a ungrounding from reality for leaders making decisions; this isn’t positive. It’s harmful. Having auto-validation is an extremely bad thing – in business, in friendship, in life in general.
Before you automatically condemn something as “negative”, take a reality check and look to see if it it, in fact, constructive and realistic – and if it IS, you stand a good chance of being immersed in a toxically positive atmosphere that is detrimentally skewing decision-making.
Remember: you can approach a realistically negative situation in a positive manner!
It isn’t just actions and situations that positivity is demanded in, however: emotions are perhaps a far more important area where we make unrealistic demands. I’ll go deeper into the harmful side of memes when they suppress valid emotional negativity with examples in Part 3, but first I want to go deeper into why suppressing negative emotion is terrible for our mental health.
The denial of non-positive emotion
This is one of the most harmful possible outcomes of toxic positivity. When someone is fake-happy, positive-toxic, it’s actually invalidating themselves and others. The demands of toxic positivity can lead us to do four terribly harmful things:
- Minimalise valid concerns and feelings, leading to saying our big problems “aren’t big at all” because all we have to do is “stop being negative”
- Comparing and contrasting issues, fostering a belief that all our emotions and circumstances can be ranked on a shared scale – that we all experience our troubles and feelings in exactly the same way regardless of context
- Negativity shaming, which denigrates and excludes people socially because they aren’t bubbly, happy and at ease all the time. This dismisses natural, valid emotions and forces faking positive vibes to the point you refuse to acknowledge anything less than excessive happiness, and also marginalises personalities, cultures, neurologies, and more
- Repressive behaviour control, where we deny our own feelings to fit in and not be outcast – important enough that we would rather risk our own mental health than be perceived as being negative. By using 2) to say “we don’t have it that bad”, we try to hide our emotions when we think the cause is too small
Of course, some issues are genuinely more minor than others, but when you look at them from a point of view of trauma rather than just negativity, it changes perspective somewhat. We all experience trauma differently.
Toxic positivity tells us it’s not okay to feel down, especially if the rest of your life is going great. This isn’t right. No one should feel like they have to hide their true emotions because society plagues us with this artificial idea of a happy, positive life, especially online.
This is especially hard-hitting when you consider how many people suffer from real depression, bi-polar and other personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, or traumatic events. Invalidating neurology, chemical imbalance, or personal trauma is hugely damaging, and we do it to ourselves as much as others with this constant air of “just be happy!”. This is terribly insidious – tendrils of it touch male mental health, suicide, female mental health, dismorphia, dissatisfaction, burnout, and so much more.
In addition to that, we’re not even addressing the source of this negativity in a realistic fashion, but marginalising it in favour of just somehow becoming positive.
Genuine positivity is finding constructive ways to get the best out of a situation.
Work is a prominent example. Many of us know how damaging is it to us to feel trapped in a career we may not like (up to 85%). Simply demanding you feel happy or make a change doesn’t fix it – some people have no other job to go to for supporting their family, or may be too anxiousor stressed for a host of reasons. So the answer may well be to change job – and for some an inspirational sudden change may well work, but not for everyone.
We then also look at corporate culture issues like praise addiction where we demand positive praise to the point where it doesn’t matter if we have earned it or not as long as we feel good and get a bonus, or we look at the demands in companies to accolade others to the point of it being almost policy, and the web becomes ever more entangled. Toxic positivity is everywhere.
Again, this isn’t defending toxic negativity – far from it. But rather than getting advice on mental health from the average life coach, it’s worth talking to psychologists and psychiatrists who have to deal with the mental health fallout and who actually know about this.
So should we be negative?
Everything needs context. We should be negative where appropriate in its many meanings, because we’re human. Sometimes that means being realistic. Sometimes it means being sad. Sometimes it means not invalidating the experiences or situations of others. Being human is about balancing and fluctuating between many states, including positivity and negativity.
If we didn’t have the negatives to deal with, we wouldn’t have a basis for comparison for being positive. Demanding we simply remove it all wholesale from our lives is therefore ridiculous.
“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”
Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
All this means accepting that the negative is also part of us, that it can ground us, balance us, and that it can be constructive and appropriate – and thus actually positive in context!
In part 3, How to be Positive 3, we will summarise and take a look at examples, things we can do, and ways forward.