Living / Mental Health In Quarantine

What ‘Toxic Positivity’ Is & How It’s Ruining Your Life

By Monday, November 30, 2020

“Focus on the positive,” they say. “Things could be worse,” they say. 

How’s your 2020 going? 

Let’s face it, even if you’ve tried to make the most of it, it’s pretty much indisputable that this year has really sucked. The pandemic in itself is mortifying enough but coupled with the economic, political, and social impacts of COVID-19, you’ve got an undeniably negative situation worldwide. 

If you’re struggling to stay positive this year, you’re not alone. Census Bureau data illustrates that a third of Americans have shown signs of anxiety and depression in 2020. Whether you’ve lost your job, know someone who has been impacted directly by COVID-19 or have been yourself, or are simply missing the way things used to be, reality is overwhelming these days, and it has been for almost a year. 

With the second wave ramping up (or already in full force) in many parts of the world right now, Instagram is once again flooded with advice on how to lean into lockdown by getting fit, learning a new language, or picking up a new hobby. “Focus on the positive,” they say. “Things could be worse,” they say. 

While well-intended, these pieces of advice discount the negative impacts and emotions that come with quarantine, such as: social isolation, mental health issues, fear, loneliness, boredom, brain fog, fatigue, frustration, and so many more.

Messaging that preaches “good vibes only” amidst all of these truly negative vibes fails to acknowledge the reality of our collective and individual suffering.

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So… What Exactly Is Toxic Positivity? 

At its core, toxic positivity is the enforcement of blind optimism. The Psychology Group defines the term as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

It’s a concept that existed before the pandemic, but has accelerated due to the fact we’re all living through an objectively bad time. Even when things are “normal,” humans experience a cornucopia of emotions throughout our day. We cry, we’re resentful, we get jealous — all of these feelings are just as legitimate as happiness. And denying ourselves and others of this reality doesn’t eliminate negative feelings; in fact, it can make things even worse. 

Denying someone’s feelings can make them feel ashamed, in turn teaching them to keep quiet about their struggles in life. Also, psychological studies show that suppressing emotions puts stress on the body, and can even make negative feelings more exacerbated and harder to get past. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s okay not to be okay”? This kind of messaging seeks to counter toxic positivity by acknowledging we are all bound to feel sad sometimes, and that’s fine. Rejecting this truth isn’t just counterproductive, it’s dangerous.

A concrete example of this is different coping mechanisms. As we’ve established, this year has been incredibly taxing on our mental and emotional state. While I’ve dealt with my down-time by staying busy with crafts and side hustles, not everyone copes with stress in the same way. For some folks, just getting out of bed may be an accomplishment. The pressure to do more with your downtime — when you’re already feeling down — may contribute to increased anxiety and depression. 

How To Avoid Doing It Yourself

It’s hard to know what to say when a loved one is having a rough time. We want to help them feel better, to fix their problems, and offer solutions; oftentimes, this is where instances of toxic positivity are well-intended. But since this kind of messaging can actually do more harm than good, learning how to validate both positive and negative emotions will make you a more supportive friend/family member/partner.

Examples of Toxic Positivity Statements: 

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” 
  • “Positive vibes only.”
  • “Try not to think about it.” 
  • “Choose happiness.” 
  • “Look for the silver lining.” 

What To Try Saying Instead

It’s important to verbally acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s situations and feelings. By doing this, you’ll make your loved ones feel seen, and able to process their emotions healthily. Here are some things you can say to support the people in your life through negative feelings, without being dismissive of their emotions:

  • “That sounds really difficult, I’m here for you.” 
  • “It seems like you’re really upset/stressed/feeling low right now, is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “That sucks, and I’m listening. Tell me more about what you’re going through.”
  • “How can I support you through this hard time?” 
  • “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this.” 

The Takeaway

While of course every conversation will differ depending on the situation, hopefully, these examples provide some context on how to best show up for the people in your life without being optimistic to a fault. We’re all having particularly hard times right now, and learning to be there for others throughout this difficult year may just be the ultimate gift to your friendship, relationship, or family member.

If someone in your life is pushing toxic positivity on you, try having an open conversation about why that kind of language is ultimately damaging, and suggest what might be helpful to you next time. 

Ashley is a freelance writer and on-going contributor at TFD based in Toronto. An avid traveler, she recently returned home to Canada after two years living abroad in Vietnam and Japan. She loves to read, try new things in the kitchen, and get outside. You can learn more about her work here and can follow her adventures on Instagram @ashley_corb

Image via Unsplash

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