The phrase toxic positivity has been floating around for the last few years now, but what does it mean for our mental health? How do we separate optimism from toxicity?
Confession: Overly positive messages (toxic or otherwise) are a huge pet peeve for me. They really get my goat — pun intended!
Nothing unsettles me as much as the absurd juxtaposition of my lukewarm cynicism and the utterly grating tones of ultra-optimism, especially when I am not in a good place.
It’s gotten better lately, my ability to handle this confetti-flinging. But that’s now, not back then when I was 20, and trying to cope with a debilitating mental situation. It did not help to see the “I choose happiness.” and “Be positive.” posts littered across the internet when I was at my lowest.
I’ll explain why. Ostensibly, these messages are directed towards those who need the motivation they supposedly offer. But what I was being offered was a band-aid for a cracking dam. A nice-smelling salt balm to rub into the open wound of my depression.
Unhelpful. So unhelpful.
I obviously know now that the lack of awareness about mental health awareness is the issue, and such messages are simply the consequence of it. But when you are struggling to cope on a day-to-day basis, the resentment you will feel will always be for the people. Systemic problems like lack of awareness impede you, but the people in front of you saying ignorant things are more immediately painful.
(You can read about how and why we need to change the way we think about mental health here.)
Look, for those who are ignorant about mental health, and think it might help, good vibes are good enough. Because they sound good enough.
But not for me. And not for others like me who feel isolated, rather than improved by this brand of positivity.
To me, it highlights something important and painful. The fact that we still offer platitudes over professional help, we still ignore trauma and mental illness, and we still prefer to grin and bear it.
So let’s discuss… How many good vibes are too many good vibes?
What’s The Problem With Being Positive?
The problem is not with being positive. It is with being only positive. Nothing but positive.
Everyone desires for their life to be good, with good holding different meanings for different people.
But the human condition is diverse and layered. We encounter any number of varied experiences over the course of our lives. And consequently, our response to these experiences cannot be singular.
When we experience pain, upset, grief – all those so-called negative emotions – we must attempt optimism, of course. But not as the first recourse. To let those ‘negative’ feelings not persist, but pass through you can be helpful.
It is inhuman and a huge burden to expect yourself to be positive-positive-positive when you are hurt by someone, when you miss out on something you wanted to win, when you lose a loved one.
In the throes of these experiences, when comfort and support are the first order of things, hearing the jarring epithet of “Stay positive.” can really pinch.
It implies that how you are feeling is replaceable. That you can pick and choose how you feel. You are obviously the master of your fate, but that doesn’t mean that you can decide how an experience will impact you.
Truth bomb: You cannot. Not immediately, anyway. In time, with labour.
I Get By With A Little Help From My Therapist
When I was fruitlessly mining the ore beneath rock bottom (read: my mental health was not good), everything felt black and white.
Forget toxic positivity. I was toxic pessimistic. Everything seemed bad, or seemed like it could be bad. If good things happened, they were clouded over by the looming fear of bad things following them.
I really was not doing well, and when people would imply that a positive attitude could change that… it hurt all the more.
Maybe it is difficult to understand mental inability when mental wellbeing is all one has known. It is, like any form of ableness, a privilege to be able to decide your vibe. Mental illness rarely makes space for this kind of decisiveness.
In fact, what made space for me to actually obtain some form of positive outlook towards life was being told that what I was feeling – isolation, insecurity, chronic despair – was normal in the face of my past experiences.
Turns out, being severely bullied and developing post-traumatic stress was a good enough reason for me to find it difficult to pull myself back to the ‘bright side’ without a little professional help.
Therapy legitimised what I was feeling, and aided me in understanding that it was not wrong to feel the way I did. It also helped me acknowledge that sitting in a good vibes soup won’t help as much as trying to wade through the experiences that were causing me to feel the way I did.
So we did. My therapist and I, week after week, sat in her office and analysed how I felt and why I felt. And at the end of one year, the tide changed. I didn’t need to have a positive outlook on life; I just needed to have one that wasn’t pessimistic.
(Continue reading below.)
“Let Grief Pass Through You…”
After my year of therapy, toxic positivity no longer offended me as much.
That’s because I knew that it wasn’t the right way to deal with ‘negative’ emotions. But I couldn’t help but wonder how many people still forced themselves to stay positive while positively crumbling on the inside.
The unspoken societal requirement to put on a good face is probably hurting thousands, if not millions right now. People who feel the need to hide their pain so that others don’t feel uncomfortable are at this very moment grinning their way through pain, instead of trying to face it for what it is.
That sucks. It really does.
Inasmuch reader, I want to share with you this line that has stayed with me for some time now. It has gotten me through some tough days, some really tough emotional states. Elizabeth Gilbert said it, on the 6-month death anniversary of her wife, Rayya:
To me, thoughtless ‘positivity’ and calls to its action are futile as well. They are a resistance to the reality of the fact that, as humans, we will feel pain. It is natural. And as humans, we don’t need to have optimism to work towards it. Just a small amount of will.
So What Can You Say Instead Of Spreading Toxic Positivity?
If you have been meaning to send a message to show your support to someone who is struggling, here is what you can say instead of a cookie-cutter message about positivity:
If you’re thinking about saying “Just be happy!” say, “I know it’s hard to think positively right now. Would you like to talk about it?”
If you want to say, “Good vibes only.” say, “I empathise with you, it must be hard to try to be positive right now. But it’s okay to feel some negative emotions about this.”
If you’re about to blurt, “See good in everything.”, say, “This is hard to dissect right now, so we’ll make sense of the situation when you feel better. For now, let’s divert your attention and do something you enjoy, if you want.”
When I was in the absolute pits of depression, I suddenly felt moved to want to change that. I wanted better. And it wasn’t abundant (and toxic) positivity that moved me. It was a sudden feeling of grief.
After years of an emotionally deadened state, feeling nothing at all, I felt grief (for personal reasons I cannot share), and it moved me. Not positivity, but something society deems negative, helped me cross the bridge to mental wellbeing.
To a place where I want to live. Want to get better. Want to find optimism for life that is measured and human.
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