The problem with ‘toxic positivity’

Over the course of the global pandemic, an everlasting positivity has graced social media. While unity and optimism are helpful tools to keep people connected during a time of drastic global change, this hyper-joyful and carefree outlook can start to invalidate feelings and experiences, leading to ‘toxic positivity’. 

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, “toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or — my pet peeve term — ‘positive vibes’”.  Many will testify to the existence of this narrative before the pandemic, but it’s undeniable that it has grown to become a part of our everyday vocabulary over the past year. During the first Coronavirus lockdown, it was common to see posts on social media that encouraged people to ‘’look on the bright side’’ or ‘’think about how much worse life could be’’. These phrases aren’t inherently ‘toxic’ but, given that 730,000 people have lost their jobs in the UK over the pandemic, it’s fair to say that “looking on the bright side” won’t pay your bills. 

The pressure to constantly be ‘okay’ invalidates our feelings and our experiences and this is particularly harmful during a pandemic as an attitude to ‘stay positive no matter what’ can be unbelievably hard to maintain when the entire world has changed overnight. This, paired with the pressure of social media to be productive during a global pandemic, can leave people feeling even more isolated and alone. It is easy to fall into a “good vibes only” approach to life and then, when you have a down day, feelings of anger, shame and annoyance can emerge for failing to keep up with the impossible standard of 100% happiness, 100% of the time. 

Nonetheless, this article is not claiming that we shouldn’t be optimistic, have hope or try to view the world in a positive way. Being able to bring kindness and joy to someone’s day simply by being positive is an admirable thing. Furthermore, it is worrying if your outlook on life begins to lead you to feeling as though the world is against you. Positivity is an inherently good trait, but, when we see positivity invalidating real life struggles and emotions, that’s when we have to question how sincere this positivity is. 

Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist, says that ‘’judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense’’. Furthermore, a study from the National Library of Medicine shows that “avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort leads to increased anxiety, depression, and overall worsening of mental health”. As Dr Zuckerman says, by denying painful feelings, we are avoiding the possibility of gaining a deeper insight about ourselves and the ability to grow. There are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, however, toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, and as we see on social media, a falsely positive facade. 

Few would argue that social media campaigns have a tendency to encourage an illusion of unity without real change. The #BeKind campaign was launched in 2017 to ‘encourage kindness as a way of being’. This campaign raises awareness about an important cause, yet toxic positivity managed to seep into a lot of the good work that the campaign has done. Despite TV networks, newspapers and the public on social media raising awareness for #BeKind, people in the public eye are still mercilessly made fun of and spoken about in a derogatory manner, having their experiences and feelings invalidated. This shows how easy it is for the internet to be somewhat inauthentic, and that we need to question the constant positivity we see on our feeds, as we don’t know how vigilantly someone is sticking to their own message. Ultimately, the organisers of the  #BeKind campaign did not mean for us to only be kind to people that we like, as #BeKind means treating everyone with respect, regardless of what we think about them. #BeKind also means taking the time to understand how someone feels, instead of telling them to ‘’cheer up’’. However, it appears that people online, either with social media platforms or in the media, have forgotten this message. Therefore, just as we have questioned the appearance of complete goodwill within this campaign, it is equally important to recognise that a similar front is being put up in regards to staying completely happy and carefree at all times. 

Toxic positivity is becoming more and more prevalent in society and on social media, however, we can counteract this by doing two things. Firstly, ‘manage your negative emotions, but don’t deny them. Negative emotions can cause stress when unchecked, but they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life’. And secondly, focus on listening to others and showing them support. When someone expresses a difficult emotion to you, ‘don’t shut them down with toxic platitudes. Instead, let them know what they are feeling is normal and that you are there to listen’. Hopefully, by employing these useful tactics, we will be able to counteract a new and constant pressure to be happy.

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