Toxic positivity is a phenomenon we are experiencing increasingly frequently today; a kind of underbelly of the wave of mental health awareness and awakening that is as detrimental as it is disturbing.
Disguised as merely a positive mindset it seems unthreatening at first – admirable, even. But when we analyse the core of the message with more scrutiny and less inherent and internalised shame around experiencing negative emotions, we can see its problematic nature and harmful consequences.
The idea that we need to be happy and upbeat all the time, or at the very least have quick turn-arounds when we encounter setbacks, perpetuates the notion that not only are certain feelings and experiences meant to be avoided but that people are somehow ‘lesser than’ if they do experience them.
Toxic positivity sounds like your friend who responds simply with ‘things could be worse’ when you tell her you are feeling tired from a long week of work. Again, on the surface, we might say that this friend is trying to uplift or inspire; trying to help. This is true to a certain extent. But ultimately, this method of trying to help others is a means of avoiding their own pain, because people who fall prey to toxic positivity are those who cannot validate their own struggles. Even in this simple instance we can pause to dissect the layered problems:
1.Immediately a barrier has been created in the friendship; the friend expressing her tiredness now feels invalidated, and potentially even shamed for her feelings. She will be unlikely to open up to her friend again, and it may even prevent her from opening up to anyone else in the future too. When we know that mental health is dealt with best in a setting devoid of secrecy and shame, this encounter could prove to be very detrimental.
2.The friend who is engaging with toxic positivity as a behaviour and coping mechanism of her own, has also missed out on a vital moment of connection; an opportunity to be supportive to her friend, and perhaps even more importantly, a chance to be honest with herself – to turn inward, activate her empathy and ask ‘When was the last time I was honest with myself about feeling tired? Why do I find it hard to admit that I am tired? What does this say about the society I live in, the messages I am being fed, or my own internalised shame around feeling tired?’
3.The idea that feelings and experiences that fall short of being “positive” or “happy” drive the idea that life is meant to be lived on a frequency that is absent of pain and suffering. This is simply untrue and unhelpful because it creates a model and mental blueprint for the way life “should be” but never will be… it sets us up for perpetual disappointment that our life is not “perfect”.
toxic positivity is
look on the bright side
and keep your head up
things will get better
when the sun comes up
things could be worse
it’s not that bad
just keep smiling
don’t be sad
it’s mind over matter
stop being so down
that’s a first world problem
be happy don’t frown
But really…underneath it all, toxic positivity is a masked fear of being real; a disguised aversion to feeling the full range of human emotions. When we engage with toxic positivity we fail to validate our fellow human’s very human emotions and experiences. Furthermore, we become complacent in engaging with our empathetic responses, instead turning immediately to problem solving without listening, downplaying instead of acknowledging, and dismissing instead of helping.
It is only when we accept that all emotions and experiences are a necessary and inevitable part of life that we can be open to hearing other people’s pain as well as feeling our own. Toxic positivity is nothing more than a denial of real life made manifest, and is damaging not only for the people who use it as a coping tool in their own lives, but to the people who encounter an ‘it could be worse’ on a day where their mental health simply needed an ‘I hear you.’