While conversing with a few of my friends, I found many of them saying the same lines, over and over, “ It will get better soon”, “It could be much worse”, “be grateful for what it is”. Now, I don’t know whether they believed the things they were saying, or whether they were saying it for the sake of being “optimistic”, or “positive”. From what I have observed, the direr a situation gets, the more people tend to be overly optimistic. Now, I pose a question to you, where do you draw the line between positivity, and over positivity? If you are a generally positive person, then more power to you. I think being positive and having a positive attitude towards life is a great quality to have. However, resorting to positivity and optimism only during the bad times is something which I consider to be toxic, and unhealthy.
There is this cliché which I, along with everyone finds extremely cringeworthy, but could well apply to what we are talking about here today. “Those who smile the widest hide the most pain behind it”. So even though many of you might not have heard this concept before this, I am sure you are aware of what it is. This concept is called “toxic positivity”.
Every once in a while when you go through something tragic and traumatic, a thought passes through your mind ‘It will get better, it cannot continue being this bad for too long’. While discussing this with my mother the other day, she remarked, “Akash, if people find solace and hope in being optimistic when they are going through times which aren’t exactly appealing, what could the harm possibly be?” The harm here is that, if people resort to positivity to get through every bad situation, they might quite possibly condition themselves to suppress all their problems, and just not learn how to deal with a bad situation. The moment you get faced with something terrible, or harmful, they tend to block out all the negativity with their toxic positivity and fail to see things for what they are.
If you want to understand the term better, take the example of something as common as Instagram. Almost all of us have/have had an account on social media. Instagram, with its several features, like polls, questions, stories, and posts, has become an inseparable part of our lives. However, it has one extremely major drawback which so many people just fail to see: It makes one put on a facade while posting daily updates. Even when, or rather especially when, people are going through not the best of times, they feel the need to post happy pictures of themselves, in a bid to convince everyone that their life is going great. Think of the worst holiday you have ever been to. Despite how bad the holiday was, so many people manage to scrape one good photo and caption it with #livingmybestlife.
This is the pressure which every one of us feels, the pressure to present a good and happening social life to everyone, even if the reality of the situation isn’t anything remotely similar. This is one of the prime examples of what toxic positivity is. It is putting on an “I am always great” or what many of my friends call a “sab changasi” façade. What this does is make one feel like they are wrong to feel any sort of negative emotions. A couple of years back, I went through what was the worst phase of my life. However, I was worried that if I spoke up about what troubled me, I would be called a “party pooper” or an “emotional person”. Hence I resorted to what we call reaction formation, in psychology. What this does is that I did the exact opposite of what I should’ve: I outwardly became the most joyous person and the life of every party, i.e adopted the strategy of toxic positivity. However, this would’ve done me irreparable damage, if I hadn’t realized what I was doing. By not talking about my problems, I was leaving them to fester unresolved. Unresolved negative emotions, can and usually will hamper a person’s personal and social growth.
Toxic Positivity is extremely dangerous for one simple reason. While it appears to be one-off behaviors, or often presents itself as a coping or a defense mechanism, that is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, toxic positivity is an extremely slippery slope, and whether it is consciously or unconsciously, people tend to build entire personalities revolving around the same. “Fake it till you make it” might sound tempting and seem to be the best course of action, however in reality you can never just let go of feelings of negativity. Just because you pretend that they don’t exist, your problems do not miraculously vanish.
Where this can prove to be the most problematic, is when you are supposed to be extending your support to friends or family and resort to toxic positivity to show your concern or support. Let us take examples and explore the differences between the two;
Suppose your friend has recently gone through a bad break up and is struggling to keep his or her spirits up, do you respond with:
A. You will get over it, don’t worry
B. Hey, I can only imagine what you are going through. It isn’t going to be the most ideal situation for some time, but hey, it can’t be this bad for too long, right?
A is toxic positivity. What this does is trivialize, or dismiss the problems which your friend is facing. By telling him or her that they will get over it, has a connotation of “You aren’t going to crib about this a couple of months in the future, so what you are doing right now, is wasting your and my time.” This makes a person feel bad, feel even worse. Option B is support. What you do there is empathize (I can only imagine what you are going through), paraphrase the situation to show you understand (I know it isn’t going to be ideal) and comfort without over-comforting.
There are several instances in which you can reduce or completely remove toxic positivity which so many of us emanate unknowingly. Simple things like saying “It is natural to give up sometimes” instead of “Never give up”, saying “Take your time to be better” instead of “Just be happy”, are a few of the examples. Words are extremely powerful and words that are toxic positive can make a person feel like having negative emotions is a crime.
Why is this concept of toxic positivity so important to being up right now? With a whole pandemic upon us, no one is happy with this situation. So many people have been faced with pay cuts, online education, and the death of their social lives. As we discussed, the worse the situation is, the more we tend to lean on toxic positivity. However, if we pretend that everything is fine, and convince ourselves that this is normal, we will lose the cutting edge to come out stronger from this. I think it is essential to draw from negative incidents like these, rather than suppressing it. My mantra remains: “It is okay to not be okay”.