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Why Toxic Positivity Doesn't Work

Spam Filter For Your Brain - Episode 66

It's easy to dismiss the idea of positive thinking as veering into the territory of toxic positivity, which I think a lot of social media ideas of what thinking positive or trying to ignore your own feelings and tell yourself that you feel something different version of positivity often can be. It can be something that is diminishing and demeaning to the emotions that you're actually going through. But I don't think necessarily that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, come with me on the journey because I'm definitely not someone who believes in trying to ignore what you're actually going through and tell yourself that you are doing better than you really are because I don't think it works. If it worked, I'll be up for it. Come along for the ride. Post all of your cute little instagram inspirational pictures. I'd love it if that changed the way that we feel often. I'm not sure that it does.

But what I have really noticed is that when we tell ourselves that we don't know the way through or we don't know how to do something or we're not very good at something, that definitely does impact the way that we feel and the way that we process something. So even though telling ourselves that we're happy and joyful and everything's really good doesn't necessarily make us feel those things that we're telling ourselves that it does, when we tell ourselves that we're rubbish and everything's terrible and we're just not the kind of person who can do that kind of thing. What it does is it causes us to have emotions, which then trigger us to take less effective action.

So, for example, if I tell you that I'm just not someone who's very good at maths, something I actually say quite a lot, what it makes me do is feel quite incompetent. I think I was only diagnosed as having Dyslexia in my 30s, and I spent quite a lot of my time thinking that I had to find ways to hide the fact that I was a bit stupid, so I have quite a story in my head about not being clever enough to work things out. So when I say I'm not very good at maths, what I feel quite often is embarrassment or shame or fear of being caught out, and what that makes me do from those feelings is it makes me want to hide, it makes me want to get the hell out of there. I find maths quite a panicky thing for me. If someone were to ask me what goes on, if someone were to pop a massive algebra equation in front of me, the thing that's going on in my head is "no". If there is any thought going on whatsoever, it is "How the hell can I get out of here? Why are you all looking at me?" My nervous system reaction is one of freeze or flight. There is no processing going on. There's no strategy looking at how I could break this down into smaller chunks or whether I may actually be able to work it out. All I'm thinking about is escape.

And what these kinds of actions lead to is me causing a situation where it is really unlikely that I'm going to be able to work out that equation, frankly, because I'm not going anywhere near it. There's no chance because I'm not trying. And that comes from me telling myself over and over again and, frankly, telling anyone who will listen and quite a lot of people who won't that I'm not very good at maths. That makes me worse at maths because I don't do any of the learning or the sitting down, the processing, the expanding my knowledge base because I'm going into a panic.

When we have a situation where we're telling ourselves the negative stuff, it causes the negative feelings. We do things that cause this to be a self-perpetuating cycle. The reason why I think that this is not completely mirrored the other way around in theory, I'm sure most of us would think, cool, well, then if I just think something positive, I'll feel something positive. I'll do positive things. (I'm not particularly keen on the whole negative-positive binary, but come with us for the simple analogy here. We like simplicity because it's a bloody short podcast). So, if I were to tell you that I'm absolutely amazing at math, you would think, therefore, that I would just feel incredible and suddenly become an absolute wiz at it.

The reason why this doesn't work is because we can tell ourselves things that we don't believe, so we can tell ourselves things that don't exist, and we can think about things that have no connection to reality. So, for example, if I were to, I can quite easily think of a tree that has purple leaves with an elephant ballet dancing at the top of it. I can think that, and I don't believe it. At the same time, we can hold concepts in our heads that we don't think are truthful. When we acknowledge that this is some of the stuff that's going on behind the scenes in our brain, we can begin to understand why sometimes just telling ourselves things that we don't believe doesn't always feel like it can change the emotions that we're having or what's going on in our lives. But what we can do with this knowledge is just try and pick apart between these two things. "I'm absolutely incredible at maths. Oh, my God. Aren't I a genius?" And "I'm terrible at maths", which is something that rolls off my tongue so easily. It's like a groove in a record. Is there a thought that I can find that would make that 2% more neutral? Is there a thought that I could just take my self-criticism out of it and just turn it into a factual thing, so I won't use it to weaponise it as much, quite frankly?

So a thought that I could move to that is slightly more neutral than "I'm terrible at maths" could be "maths exists", or "these are numbers on a page", or "I have completed equations before", or "I can probably work out a formula in Excel occasionally", these kind of thoughts are more likely to lead me to a thought where I think could be some possibility that I could choose different things, that I could learn more things, that I could actually work out the problem in front of me. And from there, it's a lot less likely that I'm going to go into a complete panic state and need to escape from there.

So this is why I think that the positivity of telling yourself that sometimes things might work out for you, that sometimes there could be a way through, is a useful strategy for you to align yourself in the direction. Of the goals that you seek in your life, of the values that you hold in your life and just how you want your days to unfold. This is, I don't know what's the sort of opposite of toxic positivity, let's call it thought-neutral. I'm so sure that a thousand other people have coined that term before me, but I'm going to take it today that that's what we're aiming at.

We're aiming at thought-neutral rather than toxic positivity. And just notice that telling yourself that you're rubbish at things is way more likely to make that thought come true.

It's occurred to me how amusing this must be for people in the States listening to me talk about maths because we put an S on the end of it, and that's just the way we roll around here.

I hope this has been a useful episode today. And here's to good luck finding sorts that are a little tiny, incrementally bit more neutral.

In fact, in I have just created a little robot to be able to help people move to more neutral thoughts from where they are at the moment. So if you want to come and have a dabble in all of that and see how other people are processing, moving from old stories they've been telling themselves for a long time into ways that they can treat themselves with more kindness, I'd love to see you on one of the courses.

I hope this has been a useful episode and I look forward to seeing you next week.


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