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Episode 82 Summary

 
We’ve all heard the phrase, “just look on the bright side” 
 
Whilst this phrase is often said with well-meaning intent, it can make us feel unheard and that our feelings aren’t valid. 
 
Dr Mary and Dr Lucy chat about this today . They explore the difference between toxic positivity and positive psychology.
 
Using some of the tools that fall under the umbrella of positive psychology can be extremely health-enhancing but denying our feeling by looking on the right side can be harmful. 
 
Denying and suppressing some of these more difficult emotions is associated with overeating and binge eating as we use food to “medicate” them  
 
Learning to sit with and process your emotions is why we always say “weight loss is more than a meal plan"

Show notes:

 

Is Toxic Positivity Stopping You from Losing Weight?

  

Dr Mary Barson 

Hello, my lovely listeners. I'm Dr. Mary Barson.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

And I'm Dr. Lucy Burns. Welcome to this episode of Real Health and Weight Loss.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Hello, lovely listeners. Welcome to today's podcast, Dr. Mary here. And as ever, I'm joined by the fabulous, the amazing, the effervescent, Dr. Lucy. Hello, Dr. Lucy. How are you?

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

I'm very good. Dr. Mary and I am bubbling full of joy this week, which is wonderful.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

It's good. You're very positive. You're exuding positivity, which is fabulous. And, and certainly very poignant to today's topic. What have you been up to lately?

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Well, I think part of it is that last year because of lockdowns, my husband and I decided that we would buy a caravan, we wanted to have the ability to go on kind of spontaneous holidays. So most of you, most of our lovely listeners will know that I have two children who are now young adults. And whilst they both live at home, they're independent, and reliable, which is, I think, you know, I'm gonna blow my own trumpet and say, I think a credit to the way we've parented because they are, they're very dependable. So we are now spending a bit of time in this beautiful new caravan that we bought last year. And one of the best things in the world is the fact that it has its own bathroom and shower. So that was always for me something that became a little more difficult. I love the idea of camping. I love the idea of caravan. I don't love the idea of the caravan bathrooms anymore. I many times have schlepped across to find that a I've either left my towel at home, I mean at home at the van or I've dropped it on the puddle, or the the shower cubicle is so small that you can actually bend over. And so I've just decided it's time. So anyway, yes. So the long story is that, yes, we bought the van, we've been out. And what I love about it is you get to spend time outside. And we all know how wonderful that is for you. I'm away from house, you know, the idea of cleaning of paying bills of doing all the things that you know, we do in our day to day lives. But with the simplicity of just being able to hook up the van and choof off for four or five days.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Sounds beautiful. I love it. One of my favorite camping sites that I go to not far from where I live has got two minute showers. Literally, that's it, you have to get these little tokens that don't cost any money, but you only get one at a time. It's two minutes, and you're done.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Yeah, I don't know that that would work for me. But yes, I figure I've earned the right to have a beautiful bathroom. So I'm happy with that. And the other thing that I am happy about is that we have I bought special tea cups that you know, most of the listeners know I love my fancy tea. But more importantly, I love my fancy tea cups. And so I did I bought special China beautifully matching tea cups that stay in the van. So whenever we go, I can still do my nighttime ritual of having beautiful cup of tea.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Sounds fabulous. Ah, well, I hope you enjoy all of these wonderful adventures to come. Sounds great.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Indeed. Now today's talk is on the concept of toxic positivity. And this is a great thing to be talking about. Because so many people will always tell you just look on the bright side. And I thought that Dr. Mary, you an expert in talking about toxic positivity. So I would love to hear your thoughts on it and what I guess what it means and be what's the problem with it?

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Yeah, toxic positivity is when we either try and impose on ourselves or other people trying to impose on us positive thinking as the only solution to a problem, you know, sort of demanding that a person avoid any kind of negative thinking negative emotions, negative experiences, and especially expressing their negative feelings or negative emotions. And people don't do this to be harmful and toxic positivity can be harmful. But people aren't trying to be harmful they're they're genuinely trying to help or they are genuinely really unable to process and to tolerate sort of negative thoughts feelings emotions themselves are negative thoughts, feelings, emotions from other people. So yeah, examples of toxic positivity could be telling someone that they're having a really like a catastrophic event in their life and to say Oh, well, everything happens for a reason, you know, a door closes and a window opens. Look, that can be helpful. But it can also be incredibly invalidating and dismissive as well. Or it could be telling people, if they're feeling grief, and that processing grief, just focus on the good things, you know, or brushing off someone's concerns, or it could be worse. There are lots and lots of examples of this toxic positivity. And it has a lot of momentum in social media, it has a lot of momentum in our lives, where people just want to focus on the good, I just want to be seen as happy and bouncy and brushing off adversity and, and spinning on a dime turning everything around and just being positive, positive, positive, positive, pivoting, pivoting. Pivoting is it's a very 2020 word. But I think it's still relevant in this in this year as well. So it doesn't sound harmful, and people aren't doing it to be harmful, but it really can be and toxic positivity can be painful for lots of reasons. One thing is that it could be ignoring real harm. And there could be something quite severe going on in a person's life that really does require to be addressed requires to be processed and, and Dr. Lucy and I work where GP's, we see lots and lots of human suffering in our jobs. And sometimes the cause of that human suffering is really, really significant and should not be underestimated, and needs to be worked through and process so that people can feel safe so that people can get to the real root cause of whatever is causing their problems. And it can be demeaning for people. So if people got a real difficulty, something that they're really finding hard, telling them to just brush it off, get over it, spin it around, turn that frown upside down can be really demeaning and invalidating. And being unvalidated can make us feel much, much worse, it can turn a harmful event in to a much more harmful event, or a difficult event into one that causes significant and ongoing psychological harm.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

The word that is really important here is validating that all emotions are valid. They're not only valid, they're normal. So I think what happens with toxic positivity is it stems from the idea that and you know, our listeners will have heard us talk about it that we do have a negative cognitive bias. So we do generally as humans, look at the negative first because that's the protective mechanism. And so I think what people are trying to do is to enhance the positive and say, you know, that will balance it out. Which is true, but you have to validate the negative emotion first,

 

Dr Mary Barson 

do we have them for a reason, negative emotions, us humans, we feel a wide range of emotions, and we're supposed to, and all of our emotions have an important part in our well being and helping us experience life navigate life. And, you know, anxiety for example. It's it's a fear response, you know, it helps alert us to the fact that there might be a dangerous situation or a moral moral crime that we need to deal with. We feel anger when we feel like there's been an injustice or a mistreatment and we feel sad when we feel like we've lost something. These are role completely valid and normal. And acknowledging these emotions is much healthier than forcing yourself or someone else to ignore them.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely. And I think what happens is that experience anything or watching someone else experience negative emotions or what it perceives to be negative emotions, the you know, the uncomfortable ones. We want to get rid of them. We want to try and get rid of them as fast as possible because feelings like anger, guilt, shame, frustration, irritation, annoyance, sadness, grief, we don't want them you know, resentment. Nobody wants to wake up feeling resentful each morning. People want to wake up feeling joyful. But it's the good with the bad if you like so, what happens is that a lot of the time people will try and talk themselves out of these emotions. I shouldn't feel so sad. I shouldn't feel so angry. I should be more positive. I should be looking on the bright side and they you know, it's almost like gaslighting yourself that you know your feelings aren't valid, but in fact they are. They are absolutely valid and And that's actually the first step in managing emotions and managing in particular things like emotional eating. It's about acknowledging and validating your own emotions, they're normal, you have to experience them. What we want to do is get rid of them. And sometimes we'll shovel food in to do that. Or we'll pretend that I'd happen. And we'll just deny ourselves that they're there and just, you know, harden up and be happy. And, you know, that's why we work.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

It isn't it, it's not a healthy or helpful way to process these emotions. And emotional eating is a particularly poignant example, because that is one of the biggest blocks and hurdles that people have to sustainable weight loss is dealing with stress, anxiety, grief, all of the negative emotions without resorting to, you know, sugary, high carb foods or highly processed foods to just shove them down. 

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely, and in fact, I would say, we've talked a bit about this, the commonest one of the commonest is resentment, but the other one I see is loneliness. So people who are lonely, look forward to eating chocolate on the couch every night, and that will abate their loneliness. So interesting how our brain connects those two, like, if I have chocolate on the couch, then I won't be lonely. When you say it out loud, it's kind of ridiculous, isn't it, but we all have done it, we've all done it, the friend in food,

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Absolutely. We've all got emotional connections to food, which don't hold up to logic. So there's lots and lots of self imposed toxic positivity, which is probably what we should focus on, because that's what you can control, you can't necessarily control other people imposing their toxic positivity onto you. You can work with your own. As you mentioned this, that first step is recognizing that negative emotions are just normal, they're perfectly normal, and actually really important part of the human experience. We can't be, you know, completely well rounded humans unless we accept this more negative aspect of our experience. And then another really interesting part of the next step with that processing negative emotions is that if you can name them, you can tame them. Yes, name them to tame them. This is It's amazing. So identifying and naming emotions, rather than trying to avoid them, makes them less powerful. There is a fabulous study in 2007, I was looking at simply getting people to put their feelings into words really disrupted the stress fight or flight response that was going on in their brain. So it was incredible. You just people are in a fight or flight response. And if you get them to say other words, like they're really, really anxious, and you get them to say, table, book, dog purse, their anxiety still stays the same really, really, really high. But if you get them to say anxious, stressed, then their anxiety reduces. So there is something very powerful that is happening at a neurobiological level. If you can name your emotion, you can tame it, name it to tame it. It's a really basic thing. It's a great tool to teach your children. At first you need to be able to accept that they're there.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely. I think it's so interesting. We talk a little bit about the concept of emotional literacy. And certainly in our coaching calls, this is really prevalent. Because yeah, people want to, they want to avoid or numb or mitigate negative emotions. And when we use the word negative, what we're kind of, I mean, really, it's more difficult, perhaps difficult emotions. uncomfort uncomfortable, yeah, that's often the word we use. And our society doesn't give us many tools to do that. And certainly for people who are of our vintage, none, because we never talked about emotions, children these days get a lot more emotional literacy, education in schools. And and I guess there's a lot more focus on learning emotional regulation, which we never got. So it's not again, it's we always say it's not our fault. We just weren't given the skills and so we've learned to use whatever skills whatever tools were available to us and for a lot of us, that was food

 

Dr Mary Barson 

was that Lucy we are by no means against positivity. In fact, we like positivity, but we like it to be healthy positivity. So how might someone let's talk about a really common event. Like, you have a difficult encounter with a colleague at work or something happens at work that really stresses you out. And it's unpleasant, you might feel angry at the colleague, you might feel guilt at a ball that you've dropped, you might feel a bit of shame, you might feel, you know, sadness, any kind of negative emotion that happened at work, I'm sure that pretty much all of us could relate to this. So how could someone go through the process of cognitive reframing?

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely. So that the first step is to acknowledge the emotion to do exactly what we've just said, name it, what am I feeling, you've got options, you if you have somebody trusted that you could talk to, you may be able to explore this verbally. Or you may feel more comfortable journaling, we spend a lot of time encouraging our members to journal their feelings, because when you write it down, you get a lot more clarity around it. When you're thinking our thoughts can go around around around and get all tangled up like a ball of wool. So getting some clarity over your thoughts and your feelings. acknowledging them go Yeah, do you feel hurt? Or do you feel upset, I'm allowed to be, I totally am allowed to be this was hurtful. And then going, Okay, I'm going to sit with this for a little bit and just process it. And the idea is that it's like the beach ball on the water. So if you're standing in a pool, you can hold the beach ball on top of the water, it's quite easy to hold. And it'll just pass. If you try and shove it down, hold it down. So you don't feel it, you don't see it, you're holding it really tightly. And we can't hold things tightly forever, they just fling up like that ball would out of the water as soon as you lose concentration or you get tired. So recognizing that numbing, mitigating shoving them down, it's not a long term solution at all, it will come back. So we go, okay. The thing The analogy I love with emotions is the idea and a bit like thoughts. They are like a station, you know, your brain is like a train station, giant station, you know, one of those ones where there's like 20 platforms, and thoughts and feelings can come in. And then you can decide if you want to run with it. Or if you just step back a bit, just take that step back and will not hold on quite so tightly. And it will pass. We know that if you stand on the track and try and avoid it coming in in the first place, you'll just get run over. So that's not helpful. But the idea of going okay, I feel this, I'm going to take a step back, do some breathing, something that's going to regulate my emotion that might be a walk might be some journaling might be calling a friend, it might be getting a fancy cup of tea, and then revisiting and going, Okay, what I feel is real invalid. What can I do, though, that will serve me in this situation? What can I do to change the way I feel about this situation? You're the boss of you, you get to decide how you want this situation to go. You get to decide how you want to feel in it, no one can make you feel anything. You're in charge of your own emotions. And so really by working through that, and then deciding, okay, I see this, I don't have to let it have the impact that it is. I could see this thing at work and think, right? That person, maybe somebody, you know, yelled at you. Maybe somebody was really off hand, maybe they were rude. I mean, we've all had that. You can decide to think, Okay, I didn't like the way that person treated me. I've got a couple of options. I could talk to them about it in the future. If they're close colleague, maybe you have to say, you know, I didn't like the way you treated me. Or you may be thinking, well, they don't normally behave like that maybe there's something going on in their life, that is actually nothing to do with me. And they were just letting off steam and I happen to be in the way. It's not ideal. It's not real. But I don't have to take it personally, I'm going to just see what happens in the next few weeks. If this behavior continues, and I will do something about it. If it doesn't, fine, I'm just gonna write it off as a as a one off. You may decide that, you know, this, this workplace. This is a common occurrence and this workplace is toxic and you don't ever want to go back and that you know, maybe this isn't the place for you. At the end of the day, you're the boss of you, so you get to decide. But if you go home every night and eat a bowl of ice cream or drink a bottle of wine or a block of chocolate to soothe or suppress those emotions, then nothing's going to change.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Yeah, nothing will change and forcing yourself to just to ignore it. Those negative feelings are looking on only ever looking on the bright side. It can potentially intensify the power have negative feelings that you're experiencing barriers, as you said, let's see if you allow yourself, to feel them to accept them, to work through them with all the beautiful tools and techniques you discussed, then you can often find a much better way to live your life.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely. And I think as important, as you said, it doesn't mean that you can't look on the bright side, you absolutely can I spend a lot of time looking on the bright side, I spend a lot of time looking for silver linings. We both to because life can be difficult at times. And we do know that there is a cognitive negative bias. But what we also know is that you cannot just pretend that negative or uncomfortable emotions don't exist and numb them. They do exist. And they're there to look after you that actually as hard as it is. If we didn't have guilt, or shame or resentment, then you know, we would potentially be a psychopath. Or a doormat, we would have nothing that people would just you know, we'd have all of those feelings as much as we don't like them. They're there to protect us at some level

 

Dr Mary Barson 

That is the normal natural part of human tapestry, and positivity is fabulous. If it's used in the right way.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Absolutely. What a wonderful note to finish on. I am excited I have a wonderful day coming up ahead. But before I get started, I'm going to have to have a beautiful cup of coffee because I love that. And as I sit with my cup of coffee, I will just savor it because that is helpful.

 

Dr Mary Barson 

Very helpful indeed. It's a really sunny day out there as I look out my window. So I think that I will take my heavily pregnant self and go for a walk and savor that.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

Indeed, indeed. All right, lovely listeners. We'll catch you next time.  So, my lovely listeners that ends this episode of real health and weight loss. I'm Dr. Lucy Burns, and

 

Dr Mary Barson 

I'm Dr. Mary Barson where from Real Life Medicine. To contact us, please visit our rlmedicine.com.

 

Dr Lucy Burns 

And until next time, thanks for listening. The information shared on the real health and weight loss podcast, including show notes and links provide general information only. It is not a substitute, nor is it intended to provide individualized medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor can it be construed as such. Please consult your doctor for any medical concerns.