Volunteer Label writer Rebecca Pearson informs us on the concept of ‘toxic positivity’ and why it can be just as damaging as negativity.
Take a scroll through the incessant pages and posts of social media platforms, and you’ll quickly stumble upon phrases like “positive vibes” or “good vibes only”. Such captions work on the premise that positivity is seen as both influential and impressive. So, whilst #positivevibes has over 62.3 million posts on Instagram, at what point does positivity become negative?
The phrase ‘toxic positivity’ is the idea that positivity can be taken to an unhelpful extreme – to the extent that negative emotions are entirely rejected – all in the name of optimism. Online, we are so used to seeing smiling faces and everyone’s “best-bits” in one long highlight reel that it becomes easy to forget that emotions other than happiness are normal too. But toxic positivity denies this. It shies away from the idea that sadness, anger and loss are all part of human experience, and it glosses over hardships with the assumption that being positive can magically make everything better.
Olivia, 19, was rejected from her first-choice University only to be greeted with positive affirmations. “It was weird – I felt so disappointed and upset, and when people found out about it, they told me clichés like ‘rejection is redirection’. It was as if I should have been feeling happy about it, as if rejection was a good thing and I shouldn’t have felt sad”. The problem with clichés, or simply telling someone you’ll be fine is that they are intended to be motivational. But, as Olivia suggests, everyone needs a different amount of time to process emotive and difficult situations, and accepting that no-one’s emotions are a burden to others is a big part of this.
The irony is that positivity itself can be a good thing. It allows us to believe that things can get better, which is a particularly helpful thought to cling to in the middle of a pandemic. However, in excess, it is just as damaging as negativity. Some emotions start to be seen as “wrong”, or as if we shouldn’t be feeling them at all. Such patterns of thinking create a vicious circle in which trying to be positive is exhausting – especially when it isn’t necessary to be happy all of the time. Toxic positivity also bleeds into feelings of guilt. When there is such an expectation to be positive no matter what, feeling sad or disappointed begins to feel shameful. Someone might be praised for “staying positive” when going through a difficult period in their life, whilst someone else might be scorned if they are seen to be negative about the exact same experience. As a society, we are conditioned to believe that all of the perceived happiness that we consume from people we follow on social media, or encounter from others in real life, is what defines normality. If we can “edit” the online version of ourselves that we present to the world, we can falsely edit our emotions in the real world too. In doing so, happiness and positivity are seen as an “ideal”, whilst emotions such as sadness or disappointment are seen as “lesser”.
It begins to seem sadly unsurprising that mental health conditions are treated with such a “can-do” attitude. Telling someone to “try not to think about the negative” is a certain way to break down trust and support. Toxic positivity is a tricky concept to contend with when it is easier to pretend that negative emotions don’t exist than it is to deal with them. Unrealistic expectations of what human experience is suggest that it is easy to get back up after being knocked down, which is certainly not the case.
Whilst positivity can be helpful, both listening and allowing other emotions to be treated as valid can prevent it from becoming toxic. Rather than parading positive quotes, accepting that sadness is just as natural as happiness can go a long way in making it normal to talk about all emotions, regardless of whether they are seen as good or bad.
Edited by Izzie Naish – News Editor
Header designed by Christos Alamaniotis – Head of Design