Toxic positivity, Toxic Gratitude, Malignant Optimism: Self-gaslighting

Uploaded 7/29/2023, approx. 24 minute read

Seven years ago, I coined the phrase "self gaslighting" to describe a situation where you convince yourself that your grasp on reality is not firm, that your reality testing is impaired, that you cannot trust yourself to understand other people, situations, circumstances in your environment in a rigorous way which would guarantee favorable outcomes.

In other words, self gaslighting is the opposite of self-efficacy.

So that was seven years ago.

Since then we've had Donald Trump and the pandemic. I'm not sure which was worse.

And self gaslighting has taken wings and entered the mainstream.

And today it features in books, articles, and what have you.

And I would like to discuss three forms of gaslighting, three specific forms of self gaslighting.

And they are known as toxic positivity, toxic gratitude, and malignant optimism, which is another phrase that I coined.

Today, these are the three things.

How do you deceive yourself into believing that you are not deceiving yourself?

How do you cheat yourself out of your understanding of reality, the belief that you can operate in the environment and on the environment in a way which would guarantee beneficial outcomes?

How do you self-defeat, self handicap, self trash, and self destruct based on wrong premises regarding your reality testing?

And all this is done by you, to yourself.

And that's the difference between self gaslighting and classical gaslighting.

Now before we proceed, many of you have complained that you're unable to download the ginormous file of my classes in Southern Federal University or Stovandon, Russia.

So I have reduced the file size and now it's a mere 5.5 gigabytes.

Yes, by the way, you can say either gigabytes or gigabytes. It's up to you.

Look it up in the dictionary. Merriam Webster, for example.

So 5.5 gigabytes, that's the way I prefer to say it. And it's much smaller than the erstwhile 40 gigabyte file.

So on your way to download a few of my lectures in Southern Federal University in Russia between 2017 and 2019, there are other lectures available on my YouTube channel. Search the channel for these other lectures, which I've given throughout the pandemic and use the words Rostov and/or university.

And finally, in the description, there's a link to an Instagram post with a few photos of myself giving lectures to the poor, suffering, huddled Russian masses.

So link to the file, link to the photos and do your homework. Search the channel and you will end up being a lot happier than you are now. I guarantee money back.

Okay, Shoshanim, my name is Sam Vaknin. I'm the author of Malignant Surf Loud, Narcissism Revisited, what else?

And a former visiting professor of psychology, as aforementioned, and a long-term member of the Faculty of CIAPS, Commonwealth for International Advanced Professional Studies in Toronto, Canada, Cambridge United Kingdom and Outreach Program in Lagos, Nigeria.

And we start with Yoko Ogawa.

Yoko Ogawa has written a novel in 1994 and it's titled The Memory Police. There is this unnamed island and things on the island start to disappear. Stamps, perfume, ribbons, and then bigger things start to disappear. One day all the boats are gone, then no birds and then no photographs. And yet, despite these clear vanishings, despite the subtraction from the environment, despite the impoverishment and constriction of life, the island's inhabitants seem to not be noticing the losses. They forget that the objects that have disappeared had ever existed.

Some of these people on the island are able to remember, but the vast majority deny, deny the disappeared and vanished objects. It's a very unsettling book.

Another book came out this week. It's written by Tahir Hamut Isgil, who is a Uyghur poet in China and is titled Waiting to be Arrested at Night. And he describes, Isgil describes a series of mysterious disappearances and changes.

But this time people do the disappearing.

Probably like in Latin America, they were the disappeared, the people who disappeared at night and were never seen again.

Same thing happens in Isgil's life only it has happened a few years ago in the People's Republic of China.

Isgil is a prominent writer and activist, and he recalls an authoritarian creep which enshrouds China. And he writes, it began slowly, quietly.

The editors of a well-known literature textbook were suddenly nowhere to be found. A friend of mine left for work and never came home.

The political situation in our region had been growing gradually more tense for several years. But still we hoped and assumed that these disappearances were isolated incidents. They witnessed armed police extracting people from their homes in the middle of the night and dragging them off to what is euphemistically called re-education camps. And yet they denied what they have seen. They pretended that nothing was happening.

In the end, he says, many of us, even intellectuals like me, who think of themselves as being highly attuned to politics, failed to see what it was that we were becoming inured to. All swelled and swelled, he fled with his family to the United States and he is now active in the defense of Uyghurs human rights and so on and so forth.

These were examples of self-gaslighting.

Even weakness objects around them disappearing, vanishing overnight and they deny that this object had ever existed.

People watch other people being dragged to re-education camps and vanish never to be seen again and they deny what they are seeing.

This is of course the outcome of cognitive dissonance and the need to resolve it. To resolve it by denying reality.

And then if you deny reality as a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance, you need to deny your ability to gauge reality properly. You need to deny your own access to reality because it's one of two.

If you are attuned to reality, if you gauge it properly, if your reality testing is intact, if you are grasping reality properly, then whatever is happening around you becomes intolerable, menacing, terrifying, a horror show.

The other option is to say I am not grasping reality properly. My perception of reality is biased or it's wrong or it's thwarted. Something is wrong with me.

Reality is okay. There's nothing there that is frightening or menacing or explosive or threatening. Reality is fine. Something's wrong with me.

And this is the resolution of the cognitive dissonance via self-gaslighting.

Today we are going to discuss three subspecies of self-gaslighting.

Start with toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is the limited ability to acknowledge anger or sadness or any negative affectivity for that matter that includes rage, that includes envy. All the negative emotions are suppressed, relabeled, refrained, out of existence, denied, etc., etc.

It's a dysfunctional emotional management strategy.

No acknowledgement of negative emotions, especially anger and sadness. They don't exist. You're wrong about me. I'm not sad. I'm not angry. Maybe you're projecting. Maybe you're sad. Maybe you're angry. I never said I'm never angry. I'm a positive person. I'm always cheerful. I'm always happy.

This is toxic positivity.

It's the pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one's circumstance is.

And so this is emotional coping by suppressing or repressing emotions.

This is exactly what the narcissist does with positive emotions.

The narcissist has toxic negativity, which is the mirror image of toxic positivity.

The narcissist denies his positive emotions because he perceives them as vulnerabilities and weaknesses and associates them irrevocably with pain and hurt.

Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts and negative emotions should be avoided.

They are wrong. They're sinful. They lead to bad places and bad outcomes. They're best avoided.

So where these people find themselves in events or circumstances which normally evoke sadness, dysphoria and worse, they're likely to react inappropriately.

And this is known as inappropriate affect.

So they're likely to try to cheer people up and rub them all their own ways in a funeral or in a tragedy or in a natural disaster.

And so every loss and every hardship is an occasion for positivity according to these people because these are learning opportunities, teaching moments, trial by God, you name it.

They reframe difficult situations, harrowing situations and circumstances and events and environments. They reframe them. They recast them. They repaint them. They reinvent them as positive but not as a means for coping but as a means for denying and repressing and overlooking and dismissing the true expression of true emotions.

In short, toxic positivity, toxic negativity is about faking it. These are faking strategies.

Toxic positivity is a construct in psychology and originally it was considered to be a good thing. Positive and negative emotions should match appropriate situations and so positivity should be balanced with negativity.

But then if we are overly positive or exclusively positive, this is bad because it implies that we have internalized an introject, we've internalized a voice or a group of voices that keep telling us you must feel positive at all times even when reality calls for another appropriate negative reaction or emotion.

In other words, even when you should be said, you should never be said. Even when it is appropriate to be angry, you should never express anger. If you do, you're a bad object, you're a bad person, you're sinful, you are aggressive, you should minimize yourself, you should recast yourself, you should control yourself.

It's about self-control. Toxic positivity is a form of control, freakishness or freakery.

Last year, Susan Cain released a book, published a book titled "Bitter Sweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole." She describes what she calls the tyranny of positivity or toxic positivity.

She says it's a cultural directive.

Whatever you do, don't tell the truth of what it's like to be alive. To be alive is to endure losses, to experience hardship, to confront ornery and bad people. This is what it means to be alive 90% of the time.

And yet if you are not allowed to release steam, to vent for a limited period of time, to share your negativity with the world, with others, how are you going to recover and heal?

There's no healing and recovery without negative emotionality. The release of pent-up negative emotions is a precondition for healing and recovery.

Any cure is bitter. Medications are bitter. Medicines are bitter.

So bitterness is part and parcel of self-medicating.

And so the tyranny of positivity, whatever you do, don't tell the truth of what it's like to be alive, is a toxic recipe. It is self-poisoning, form of self-poisoning.

Cain said that historically, especially in the 19th century, people perceived themselves as either lacking in character or endowed with character. So if they were endowed with character, they ended up being successful and thriving. If they were lacking in character, they were failures and they endured defeats.

And so a lack of success was a prime indicator of a failure of character.

This replaced the Protestant work ethic in the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, beginning of the 19th century.

The Protestant work ethic said that if you were chosen by God and blessed by God, you're going to be successful. Success was a prime indicator that you had been chosen by God.

So it was a bit of a narcissistic approach with grandiosity. So people strutted around, self-congratulating for having been chosen by God to be this elite.

Cain documents the perceived failure of character that leads to failure, that leads to being a loser, as reflected in the evolving definition of these words, loser, failure, and so on.

So our culture has a positivity mandate, according to her, an imperative to act unfailingly cheerful, positive, always like a winner. Fake it till you make it.

And so as early as 40 years ago, there were psychologists who were exploring the concept of unrealistic optimism or what I call malignant optimism.

Toxic positivity actually first appeared in writing in 2011, in Halberstam's book, The Queer Art of Failure. And he wrote that he wanted to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.

Positivity is a good and helpful attitude for most situations because what underlies positivity is an optimism about life and the willingness to take on challenges and to overcome hurdles and obstacles.

Positivity also is intimately linked with kindness and with gratitude, with a stable mood, not a lability mood, and with regulated emotions.

So I'm not railing against positivity, but everything taken to extreme, healthy narcissism taken to extreme is pathological narcissism.

Positivity taken to extreme is toxic positivity.

It's the unrealistic expectation of having perfectly happy lives all the time.

And when this does not happen, people feel shame and guilt because they feel that they're responsible to secure a blemishless, perfect life.

And if they fail in doing so for themselves and for their loved ones, something is wrong with them.

If they fail to attain the perfection that they so desire, something must be a misinvex in them, in their character, upbringing, you name it.

They're deformed, they're defective.

There's a lot of guilt and shame that is attendant upon defeat and failure, which are totally normal processes and parts in life. Life is made up of losses, mostly.

Positivity becomes toxic when people reject negative feelings, even when they are appropriate, and even when negative feelings are the positive reaction to have.

When you have negative feelings, they motivate you. Anger motivates you to modify other people's behavior by communicating the anger. Sadness motivates you.

Every negative effect motivates.

So when you remove all the negative effects from your life, you deplete and impoverish the repertory of motivations available to you.

You impoverish yourself in your capacity to accomplish things.

People with constant requirements for positive experiences, positive life, positive relationships, negative everything, they stigmatize themselves whenever they feel down, whenever they feel bad, whenever they feel wrong, they stigmatize themselves.

So whenever they are depressed, whenever they have natural negative emotional responses, such as sadness or regret or remorse or stress, or you name it, they tend to self-blame, put themselves down, castigate and chastise and hectare and criticize themselves.

This is a form of gaslighting, of course. It's the harsh inner critic. It's a sadistic superego, or in clinical terms, it's autoplastic defenses. It's very common in what used to be called neurosis.

We need to accept negative emotions. Negative emotions lead to increased happiness and health. Negative emotions motivate you to get rid of negative emotions by doing things, by taking care of yourself and of your nearest and dearest, by changing your life's circumstances, by embarking on a new path.

Negative emotions are critical.

There are authors like Kimberley Harrington, they see toxic positivity as a form of self-gaslighting. Harrington says that it is fine to be sad when you are sad and angry when you are angry.

You need to feel the entire, what she calls, rainbow of feelings.

Situations in life are uncontrollable. You need to accept this. You need to get rid of narcissistic defenses of grandiosity. I control everything. Everything is under control.

Positivity is determined by these situations.

If the situation is controllable, artificial positive thinking destroys the ability to fix a negative situation.

You need to recognize that something is wrong before you can fix it.

Then when you do recognize that something is wrong, it's normal to feel bad about it.

Another determinant is a person's attitude towards happiness.

If you see happiness as the ultimate goal in life and everything that challenges happiness, undermines happiness, is a threat, is bad, should be gotten rid of, then this kind of attitude towards happiness prevents an optimal response to negative experiences.

Inevitable negative experiences.

Positivity becomes toxic when it renders you unable to face reality and to examine and fix mistakes and losses and mishaps, misfortunes, failures and defeats.

You need to embrace the negativity in your life in order to recognize the positivity and transition into it.

When you gloss over mistakes, when you feign exaggerated confidence, this is not helpful because it prevents learning.

You need to learn from mistakes.

Critic of positive psychology, for example, suggested that it places too much emphasis on positivity, upbeat thinking while shunting challenging and difficult experiences aside to the side.

So negative emotions are critical, not allowing them, disallowing negative emotions.

This results also in physical consequences.

You internalize these emotions.

Freud described it as conversion symptoms.

You convert the negative emotions into physical manifestations.

You somatize them.

The body keeps the score.

Van der Kolk.

There was a concept of tragic optimism.

It was a phrase coined by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, an existentialist and later a humanistic psychologist.

And he said that tragic optimism is an antidote to toxic positivity and so on.

You need to be optimistic, but you need to recognize the tragedy that is life and combine the two.

But some victims never learn.

You read this kind of people saying, you know, it is true that my abuser is a chauvinistic narcissist and that his behavior is unacceptable and repulsive and revolting and so on.

But all my abuser needs is a little love and he will be straightened out.

I will rescue my abuser from his misery and misfortune. I will give him this little child that I see. I will give him the love that he lacked as a child. And then his narcissism will vanish and we will live happily ever after.

That is not tragic optimism because it's unrealistic. It's counterfactual. It defies the facts.

I often come across said examples of the powers of self-deception and self-delusion that the narcissist provokes in his victims.

And this is what I call malignant optimism.

This is the dysfunctional antithesis of a useful coping strategy known as defensive pessimism.

People refuse to believe that some questions are unsolvable. Some diseases are incurable. Some disasters are inevitable. Some losses are ineluctable.

People see a sign of hope in every fluctuation and vicissitude. They read meaning and patterns into every random occurrence, every utterance, every slip of tongue and every exigency.

They are deceived by their own pressing need to believe in the ultimate victory of good over evil. Their pressing need to believe in the goodness of people, that health will prevail over sickness, over disorder and structure, over chaos.

You see, if we accept that life is chaotic and unjust and dangerous, life appears to be meaningless, arbitrary and very few people can tolerate this.

This is the source of the power of religion over people. Religion provides people with a self-delusion and self-deception that the world is an orderly, structured, just place. Which of course it is not.

And this is malignant optimism.

People impose on the world or on their intimate partners a design, progress, aims, paths. This is magical thinking.

People say if he had only tried hard enough, if he had only really wanted to heal, if only we had found the right therapy, if only his defenses were down, there must be something good and worthy under the hideous facade.

No one can be that evil and destructive. He must have meant it differently. He didn't mean what he said. God or a higher being or the spirit or the soul is a solution and the answer to my prayers.

My abuser can be healed and fixed and cured with the grace of God or Jesus or some other nonsense.

The Pollyannaish defenses of the abused are aimed against the emerging and horrible understanding that humans are specks of dust in a totally indifferent universe.

Playthings of evil and sadistic forces of which the narcissist is only one.

And it is a defense.

Malignant optimism is a defense against the unbearable realization that your pain means nothing to anyone but yourself. Nothing whatsoever. It has all been in vain.

The narcissist holds malignant optimism in barely undisguised contempt.

As far as a narcissist is concerned, malignant optimism is a sign of weakness, a vulnerability, descent of a bleeding prey, a gaping hole through which he can penetrate and invade the victim.

The narcissist uses and abuses this human need for goodness, for order, for structure, for meaning. He uses and abuses all human needs.

This is no exception.

Gallibility, selective blindness, selective memory, malignant optimism. These are the weapons of the beast. They have used the hard at work to provide themselves with this arsenal.

The last of the trio of examples of self-gaslighting is toxic gratitude.

Toxic gratitude is a close skin of toxic positivity. It is closely aligned with people-pleasing, but it's not entirely the same. It's toxic gratitude is when you're implementing self-gaslighting, according to Elizabeth Pearson.

She has written Career Confinement: How to Free Yourself, Find Your Guides, and Seize the Fire of Inspired Work. And she says, this can look like somebody saying, "Oh, I'm not quite as happy as I feel I could be. Maybe in your job or in your relationship, or maybe it's even where you are living.

But then this voice comes in and says, "Nope. Just be grateful. Everything's fine."

So this dialogue is very important.

You say to yourself, "I'm not happy. I could have been much happier. I'm not happy with my job, not happy with my relationship, I'm not happy with my neighborhood, I'm not happy with my life circumstances."

And then Pearson says, there is this introject. This voice is activated and says, "Shame on you. Shame on you. Look at other people. Look at the people starving and I don't know where. You should be grateful. Everything's fine. Feeling negative about your life, carping and complaining, that is pathetic. That is immature. That is even sinful. That is disgraceful. You should stop doing this.

Toxic gratitude keeps you entombed and embedded in situations that are affecting you negatively.

Jobs that you've overgrown, outgrown. Relationships that aren't right for you.

She says, "Gaslighting is such a hot topic and I'm like, we've got to look at ourselves. We're gaslighting ourselves."

Well, she's like seven years too late, but I'm grateful that she is using this concept.

According to Pearson, there's some signs of toxic gratitude.

And so there are three signs according to her.

Number one, you're getting signs that something isn't working for you anymore, but you keep dismissing your desires.

Number two, the gratitude that you're expressing is invalidating your feelings.

Number three, you're using gratitude as an excuse to stay in a situation that isn't serving you.

This is likely due to fear that you may not be able to achieve any better.

And there are some internal thoughts, one could say automatic negative thoughts, associated with toxic gratitude.

She gives a few examples.

"I'm getting paid. A lot of people are out of work now, so I should just really be happy and grateful that I have a job." Or "I don't want to be greedy. I don't need to negotiate for more money at work." Or "I should just be grateful that I get to work from home now, so then I don't need to ask for these other things that I need."

In romantic relationships, the situation is even much worse because of multiple sunk costs, previous investments, and catastrophizing, emotional investment in the relationship.

Gratitude in personal life, according to Pearson, can look like this.

"Well, I really should just stay. Nobody's perfect. I'm unlikely to find a better partner.

Maybe this person forgot my birthday or doesn't make me coffee or in the morning or whatever, and it's better than being alone. It's better than nothing.

And Pearson suggests in a book a series of techniques on how to overcome toxic gratitude.

And I'm not going to provide you with a spoiler. She has written a book, and I think she deserves the credit, and she deserves to benefit from the work that she has ploughed into the book.

So if you're interested, combine the book.

Toxic positivity, toxic gratitude, malignant optimism are the ways in which we deceive ourselves into believing that we are not good enough at either evaluating reality or changing it.

And I'm sorry to say that the vast majority of humanity today are self-gaslighting. They are all entrapped in this hopeless condition.

And this is why rates of depression and rates of anxiety are exploding all over the world. One third of the adult population in the world now suffer from either depression or anxiety or both, and another 15% cope with personality disorders. One half of the adult population is now diagnosed with severe or harsh mental health problems.

And this very often is the outcome of lifelong self-gaslighting using introjects in your head a sadistic mother, a hateful intimate partner. These introjects inhabit your mind, parasitically colonize it, take over, collaborate with each other, and the aim is to put you down, to take you down, to depress you, and finally to destroy you. Don't let them.

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