It’s been a difficult year for most, there is no denying that. It’s been a year of loss, of grief, of loneliness. People’s lives have been lost, people’s livelihoods have been lost, and how we conducted our day to day life has permanently changed. It is not negative to say these things. I am not operating from a place of doom and gloom. This is me, stating what I believe to be an honest description of life in a Global Pandemic. I believe with all of my heart that it is vitally important that we talk about the challenges and difficulties we have had to endure, not just this year but for all the years we live. We are however living in a time of the ‘Good Vibes Only’ mantra. It only takes a minute of scrolling online before being bombarded with countless ads and articles on how to be positive and happy in life. Now don’t get me wrong I love a good rendition of the wonderfully happy anthem ‘Everything is Awesome’ from the Lego movie as much as the next person but the reality is that to be human means that unfortunately we will all experience pain, loss and hardship in our life. Denying those truths does not make them any less real, in fact, if anything it can make things worse for ourselves and others in the long run. While I truly believe that a positive outlook on life is healthy for our mental wellbeing, the problem is that life isn’t always positive!
Toxic Positivity may be a new enough term but the concept is an age old one. The Psychology Group defines it as “the excessive and ineffective over-generalization 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”. I assume I’m not the only one who has been on the receiving end of well intended but hurtful comments like “it could be worse”, “just stay positive” or ‘there’s always a silver lining’ at times in my life when I felt at my lowest. I’ve only realized now, after the fact, just how much those words impacted me. With that said, I’m not naive enough to believe that I was not guilty of making similar statements at some points over the years too, I am learning and wanting to be consciously aware of the words I use and the impact they may have especially on someone who is struggling or going through a hard time. What I’ve learned is that the most helpful thing we can do in these situations is to provide a space to let people feel how they feel, to let them express those feelings and to just be with them. Holding a space that is safe for our loved ones to do this is invaluable for our wellbeing and our relationships with each other.
“Toxic positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous on the surface but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive what they're really saying is, My comfort is more important than your reality”
Toxic positivity has us believing that we should hide how we are really feeling, it has us feeling shame and guilt when we have ‘negative’ thoughts, it has us ignoring and avoiding our problems with a ‘ just get on with it’ attitude and it leaves us dismissive of both our own and others difficult emotions. But I wholeheartedly believe that all emotions are important, all emotions are part of the human experience. I also believe that there is a big difference between what toxic positivity has us thinking, feeling and believing and what’s actually supportive and encouraging, that includes statements like ‘it’s normal to be feeling negative right now’, ‘you’ve come through hard things before, I believe in you’, ‘this sucks, how can I support you?’. Everyone’s life and circumstances and relationships will differ so I am not about to give advice on how to handle these situations on an individual level but let me say this; blanket statements that overgeneralise and fail to acknowledge the reality of what is going on do not serve to help the person but rather the opposite. When it comes to our loved ones, we must learn to find a way to acknowledge their reality and let them know we are there to listen to and support them, to remind them that all of their feelings are valid.
Since March 2020 I have personally seen a drastic increase in the presence of toxic positivity in society. It came about in the form of all the things we ‘should’ do while in lockdown to make the most of our time while totally negating the fact that millions of people all over the World were experiencing fear, loss and loneliness in ways that no one could have anticipated. Even if we were ‘safe’ in our homes there was a daily cycle of fight or flight mode that we found ourselves in (often without our awareness) every time the news was on, every-time we scrolled social media, every time we heard the daily confirmed cases of COVID19. Even if we were safe in our homes there were strong feelings of confinement, concern and chaotic uncertainty. A large percentage of our energy was being used up in our endeavor to stay realistic and optimistic and in managing ourselves and our loved ones in the day to day of life in a pandemic. Energy was also used to help us survive the situation we found ourselves in; mentally, physically and emotionally. There was an entire spectrum of emotions that we each found ourselves in, none of which make us anything other than humans going through an unfathomable time in our life. Adding to those pressures were the plethora of ads and articles telling us how we can ensure we are staying positive and productive while in lockdown. Learn a new language, write a book, and above all else don’t waste this time. I know I certainly felt the pressure of this and succumbed to it often. But being productive and positive is not what make us worthy or lovable or ‘good’. We are far more complex than that. We can feel sad, angry and upset while at the same time optimistic for the future. We continue to navigate our way through this situation, not entirely sure of what lies ahead, but I vehemently believe that burnout and breakdowns will lie ahead if we are relying solely on positivity and productivity to get us through.
I feel hugely passionate about this because I believe stigma ends when we welcome with open arms the difficult emotions and messy realities that we all live through. I believe this to be especially true when we are talking about oft- avoided topics like mental health, grief and death. I firmly believe that happiness and positivity are not something to be achieved, they are not goals, they are not what we should strive to be all of the time, rather they are a byproduct of love, connection, healing and wellness. Positivity and happiness radiate from a person who feels loved, heard, supported and valued. Positivity is not something that occurs simply because we tell someone to be. It is what happens as a result of true belonging and connection therefore I believe that the way to real positivity and happiness is to encourage ourselves and others to show up as, and accept, our truest selves; the good, the bad and the ugly.
I am not for a moment saying that we should allow our ‘negative’ thoughts and emotions to take over entirely, but I am saying that we cannot avoid or deny them. Feelings of sadness, anger, despair etc are felt so that they can provide us with information. It is our brain’s way of telling us that something is not right or safe for example. It is important that we remind ourselves and others that it is pretty normal to feel sad or angry when we find ourselves in stressful situations. We must allow ourselves, and others to acknowledge that, to accept that and to find ways to make changes that are possible and realistic.
The point I want to hit home, more than anything else, is this; it does not mean you are less than if you are going through a hard time or struggling and need to express how you are feeling. It does not make you a pessimist if you are feeling unable to ‘always look on the bright side’. It does not make you unworthy, or negative or weak, it makes you human. Let me repeat that; it does not make you a ‘Negative Nancy’ or a ‘Moaning Marty’, it makes you human!
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human”