Every morning as I’m sipping a glass of orange juice and tucking in to breakfast, I scroll through social media pages, as I’m sure many of you do too. No matter if I’m super enthusiastic about the day ahead, or dreading whatever chores there are to come, I’m faced with the same messages. “Just be optimistic!”, “Look on the bright side!”, or “Positive vibes only!” Every time I see those overly cheerful exclamation marks I wonder who in this world really experiences nothing but positivity. Well, here’s my answer – no one.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is when you pretend to yourself and/or others that you are happy and positive all the time, and feel no negative emotions whatsoever. Sounds wonderful in theory, but there are many issues with it.
Toxic positivity and mental health
Firstly, it’s simply not possible to go through life with a smile on your face the entire time. We’re often thrown curveballs, and stress is an everyday factor for many people. Toxic positivity insists that any negative emotions be shut down or ignored, but I think this only makes us feel worse when those inevitable feelings come knocking. Hand in hand with this, it frames negativity as being optional and puts shame on people for experiencing understandable reactions, including those struggling with their mental health. Anxiety and depression become ignored. In other words, toxic positivity twists around the human emotional experience to a sweet apple with a bitter core.
It is linked to pushing away your emotions and hoping that they’ll go away. For example by saying “I’m fine” even if you’re not. Even though this is a coping mechanism short term, it can be harmful long term. Negative emotions build up, get bigger, and eventually can come out all at once. The danger here is that you could be overwhelmed by this sudden rush of feelings.
Being aware of toxic positivity is particularly important during the current pandemic. It is helpful to recognise the strange and confusing time that we are living in, instead of pretending to be unaffected. That way, you can better understand and manage your mood, as well as talk to others about how they feel too.
Recognising your emotions
So, if toxic positivity is best avoided, is there an alternative? Yes, and it comes in the form of validation and optimism. The key difference is that both of these acknowledge the negative. For example, instead of “Happiness is just a thought away!”, it’s more realistic to say “I can see how that’s so hard,” or “I’m here for you.” It’s about recognising and working through emotions in a practical and truthful way. Knowing that it’s “Ok not to be ok”, to replace one clichéd phrases with another. Remember, you can experience a combination of emotions all at once – positive and negative, one or the other.
Keeping things in perspective
The trouble for many of us is that we are unaware of our toxic positivity. Hopefully by reading this article you are taking the first step to being more aware of your own toxic positivity. Talk to your friends and see if they’ve had any experiences with social media and toxic positivity. According to Mark Manson, an American self-help author, “Emotions serve a purpose: they are your brain’s way of telling you something good or bad is happening in your life. They are feedback. Aaaaaand that’s about it.” Being aware of how you feel can help you to think about the cause of those feelings, and keep things in perspective. I know that when I’m aware of my mood and feelings, for example anxiety, it can help reduce its impact because I realise all of a sudden that things aren’t as bad as they first seemed.
So, I’ll leave you with another interesting quote from Mark Manson that just about sums up this whole article – “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”