It’s okay not to be okay: Why toxic positivity has to be avoided

Let us assume a scenario:

You have had a terrible time keeping up with working remotely and are unable to keep up with keeping in touch with everyone that you love. You are so low on motivation that sometimes getting yourself to declutter your space seems unviable and a mountain to step on. The first reaction your close ones presumably would present you with (after getting help from a therapist) is to “try to look at a more positive side to life, to see how you have so much more to be grateful about”. Sure, that is one way to consider the situation and to feel good, but it sweeps away your problems under the very dirty pile of clothes you need to clear out. So, what do you do?

This is Toxic Positivity. It is defined as a literal overdose of the belief that being positive or being cheerful in the toughest of situations can help you effectively work your way out of problems. According to psychologists it is “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of an optimistic state across all situations”.  That is, one can attract positivity by reassuring oneself of the ‘good life’. It has increasingly become so persistent in our lives that someone had to come up with an oxymoron term for it. It creates a sense of polarity in our lives. Meaning, if we forget the negatives and focus on what is good, it will all work well.

If there are minor inconveniences, it can often make you feel a sense of guilt because you can be positive and are privileged to have something to look forward to. The rhetoric of “It will all be over” tends to undermine the small struggles that require active attention. “Whatever happens, happens for a reason” is another aesthetically pleasing phrase that is often used to comfort with a sympathetic gaze. What it does invariably, is denying any space for causal analysis and inviting us to just ‘feel’. Often, this constant need to be chirpy Nancy adds to feeling exhausted, perhaps with an undertone of: “maybe you choose to be this unsatisfied and gloomy”. Almost as if it is as easy as picking a pair of jeans to switch negative emotions away. Masquerades of toxic positivity appear as:

“This is not like you at all.”

“All of us go through it, you have to be grateful for the things you have with you.”

“Happiness is a choice.”

“Just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.”

“Get over the grief and suffering, and focus on the good things in life.”

“It could be worse.”

And my absolute favourite is – “It will all be okay”.

Why is it particularly important to avoid? Simply because it invalidates one’s grief, pain, negativity, anxiety, despair, or panic. Just because someone lends a sympathetic ear or a gaze or a positive/motivational phrase, the internalisation and the magnitude of the problem does not go away. It hampers your own processing of ideas and risk assessment. Would you decide to stay in an emotionally abusive workplace even if people say, “at least you have a job”? The answer simply is no. It tends to create a sense of duplicity in our lives. I am guilty of sometimes joining in the ‘fake it till you make it’ squad. Remember the pile of dirty clothes you swept away with your emotions? Leading to this is a sense of isolation and competitiveness. We are often convinced that others who struggled coping well, and so the fault seems to be in our mechanisms. This is extremely harmful in two ways: either one shuts themselves off completely out of shame, or you invalidate your feelings by choosing to compare yourself to others. Often, not talking about emotions also sets off a pattern of avoidance.

Nobody likes being negative Nancy, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a more positive approach. But when your boat is sinking, singing Abba does not solve your problems; one needs to assess what your coping mechanisms are, or you end up in deep waters (pun intended!). Realistically understand that your emotions are as complex as the situation itself. So, just listen to anyone who needs it, and to yourself. Engage with yourself. If you grieve, look at your situation, and assess really what would make you feel better. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. Make sure you know how to not impose positivity on others as well. There are plenty of websites which recommend how to adjust your language to avoid toxic positivity; the psychology group online has particularly useful resources. 

I cannot recall anyone ever saying that the solution to unhappiness was ever pretending to be happy. Understand for yourself if you have ever engaged with toxic positivity, apologise and choose to say, “I understand”. Next time you tell yourself “I have to get over it” just remember, “it is okay not to be okay”. Be authentic. 

[Ishani Mukherjee – she/her]

[Photo credits: Max Klinger]

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