Can positivity be toxic?
By Sakuni Weerasinghe
It’s another Sunday morning. You wake up, make your morning cup of tea, and sit down on the couch to enjoy this peaceful holiday after what was a strenuous week. Your phone rings. It’s your boss calling you to ask for some work to be done immediately. As soon as the call ends, you take a look at your WhatsApp notifications. It’s your friends asking to hang out. You go into the kitchen to wash your cup and you notice the list of groceries you need for the week stuck to the door of the fridge. You’re exhausted, irritated at having to work on a Sunday, sad that you aren’t able to join your friends for the evening, and nervous about how they will feel about you cancelling a meet-up yet again. You take your phone into the living room, let out a big sigh, and plaster a smile on your face as you snap a picture for Instagram, captioning it “Sundays Fundays #positivevibesonly”.
This can be anyone’s day. Juggling work, a part-time degree, a social life, and, well, life in general as an adult can get tough at times. However, we often keep these struggles “behind the scenes” as we snap and post on social media exuding happiness, excitement, and a sense of positivity, although the reality may starkly differ. If you scroll through any social media platform, you will hardly come across anyone posting adult life as it unfolds. The whole breadth of human emotions is ignored in favour of “positivity”. But is this actually positivity?
The need to show off only positive emotions and the portrayal of a state of optimism across all situations, irrespective of the honest experience of the person, can be termed “toxic positivity”. It is considered to be toxic, as the person’s authentic emotional experience is dismissed, minimised, or invalidated during the process of maintenance of this mask of optimism. It is completely normal for a person to experience a full spectrum of emotion from happiness or excitement to anger, jealousy, envy, greediness, disgust, or resentfulness. When we demand ourselves or others to retain a positive mindset irrespective of the situation, we are conveying the message that experiencing anything besides positivity is “not okay”. Thereby, we are denying this totality of human experience.
Some forms of toxic positivity include:
- Avoidance of experience of true feelings
- Hiding/masking any experience that is not considered “positive”
- Brushing off emotions or experiences that create discomfort
- Shaming oneself or others for experiencing and expressing anything other than “positive” emotions
- Making invalidating statements or giving unhelpful advice such as “just think positive”, “things could be worse”, “think positive thoughts”, or “look on the bright side”
- Insinuating that a person should just “be grateful”
While to be in a state of happiness is what most of us strive for in life, it is invalidating to expect ourselves or others to relentlessly and exclusively focus on positivity while avoiding anything else. Not only would it lead to denial or suppression of emotions, but it also adds the experience of “shame” to anyone struggling or experiencing difficulties or frustrations in life. This is why even today, many still remain silent about their psychosocial concerns and do not reach out for help. This invalidates what is a normal, human experience.
So how can we remain accepting and validate the full spectrum of the human experience?
Begin with being mindful of your emotions
Spot how you feel at any given time and acknowledge that feeling. You may be sad, bored, frustrated, or even angry. Give space to that emotion. It may be uncomfortable in the moment, but remember that avoiding it will bring about more distress at some point in the future. Remind yourself that it is okay to experience anything besides positivity.
Take some time to ponder why it is necessary for you to keep up a mask of positivity. Are you trying to avoid a certain emotion(s)? What comes to mind when you do experience it? What does it mean to experience that emotion? What does the experience of that emotion tell you about yourself, or others? Answering these questions will shed light on what it is you’re truly trying to mask with positivity.
Be mindful of your dialogue with friends or family
Toxic positivity can infiltrate our relationships with others and cause serious damage. Check yourself when you are speaking to someone and you’re prone to say something like “just look on the bright side”. Try instead to sit with them, listen to them, and help them sit with their emotions. Remind them that it is normal and human to experience these emotions. Instead of saying “things could be worse”, try validating their experience by saying “that sounds really hard”. Instead of saying “just cheer up”, try asking questions to explore what is going on.
Above all, recognise that it’s okay not to be okay!
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