In my latest doom scrolls, I’ve been inundated with positivity content. The ‘be positive’ people and their algorithm have found me. They want me to join their cult of happiness, manifest joy into my life by shutting down any negativity, and focus on myself and my goals with the singular focus of being happy all the time. They come with cute graphics and ready-made daily affirmations for me to live by. Sounds great, right?
Except, is it? Because it irritates me.
The thing is, in the search for unending happiness, there seems to be no room for anger or sadness or any negative emotion. Which is hugely disappointing because venting is an integral part of my life. Articulating these thoughts out loud or in my journal is an incredible release. But it also helps me accept my state of mind, put things in perspective and sometimes, come up with possible coping mechanisms. With the relentless onslaught of toxic positivity, there is no space to articulate and process uncomfortable thoughts. We’re all just expected to be positive all the time! Which is just not possible.
“Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or — my pet peeve term — ‘positive vibes,’ explains Dr. Jaime Zuckerman in an article in the Washington Post, a clinical psychologist who specializes in, among other things, anxiety disorders and self-esteem.
With toxic positivity, the pressure to be happy all the time can make us invalidate any thought that doesn’t have positive energy. In fact, studies have shown that denial of negative feelings can make people actually feel much, much worse both physically and mentally.
Think of your mind like a pressure cooker. If you don’t let out the air, things will...get messy. The pressure cooker will burst. The mind, also, needs some release in order to feel healthy. The same study cited above explicitly states, “It is important to acknowledge that feelings and emotions are not responsible for health disorders and illnesses. Rather, it is the protracted reliance on self-defense against the expression of emotions and feelings that creates the tension.”
There’s another thing that toxic positivity ignores. Privilege. Looking on the bright side is not an option in the face of tragedy or dire circumstance. Peddling happiness to people who face injustice daily is tone-deaf. For some people, the your-happiness-is-all-in-your-control narrative comes across as blaming them for their unhappiness, instead of making systemic changes to improve quality of life.
My least favourite thing about toxic positivity is that it makes me feel guilty for feeling sad.
As if feeling low isn’t hard enough, an added layer of guilt makes it all the more unpleasant. Stephanie Preston, explains a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says “We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt.”
Recognizing that the toxic positivity discourse can be damaging is a step towards countering the vicious cycle of feeling bad about feeling bad. Thankfully, humans are capable of more than an emotional range of a teaspoon. Positive and negative emotions are not mutually exclusive, they can co-exist without cancelling each other out. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, and that’s really, really okay.
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